Tag Archives: communication

Katun, Popcorn and other lost in translation misunderstandings


Sometimes, things are not what they seem to be, and sometimes things are not what you seem to hear…

One thing about Thailand that’s really different and exotic is something as basic as… communication.

To put things into context first, I see many expats taking it for granted that all Thai should speak and understand English…

Maybe it is because I am not a native English speaker but I do NOT assume that by default anyone should master Shakespeare’ language.  For example, I see many times on expats forums the exasperation of occidental fellows talking about bad language skills of staff  in a shop, taxi drivers etc..     or that “lousy” customer service that ” can’t even speak proper English” well, people, helloooo? Do customer services in your countries speak Thai? I guess not..  And actually I wish I will eventually speak Thai as clear as a lot of Thai speak English.

Which leads me to my second point, we are guests in a foreign country and  yes we live, work here and pay taxes,  but out of respect for our hosts we should make it a duty to integrate.

Integrating means being able to communicate, communicating means assuming that it’s up to YOU to make the effort to make yourself understood, and not the opposite. (and you will find many people actually putting in a lot of efforts in trying to understand you)

Oh it’s easily said and far less easily done,  I sometimes get frustrated like anyone else.

When you order something and end up with something totally different it’s fun, but in an emergency situation it can be far more critical.

I  guess the fact that our languages but also our cultures are very far apart and with no common root makes it quite complicated for us to learn it,  just as for them to learn English.

Occidentals are very complicated, after a year here I came to that conclusion. Cynicism, sarcasm and irony are a few things we love to use but that do not work here at all, or should I say do get lost in translation as Thai do not lack humor, quite the opposite actually. (Either that or Thai see us as so rigid and self-important that they assume we are incapable of having any sense of humor so take all we say literally ahah!)

Metaphor does not work that well either, same as allusions.. Sometimes we are afraid to offend so take some detour to express or request something.  Although Thai culture is all about subtlety and you are sometimes expected to understand the unspoken,  when you go for it, it doesn’t work.

It’s like with men you see   (sorry guys): when you want something speak up straight to the point and don’t get lost in meandrous and obscure hints hoping for the other to understand.. That can lead to very awkward situations.

A good example I have of this is at work where we have a very noisy coffee machine, and the pantry room door tends to stay open quite often.

Someone posted a very nice note in English above the coffee machine, explaining how many decibels were a baby crying,  a plane taking off, traffic etc. then concluding with something like “and how many decibels do you think the coffee machine is, have you closed the door yet?”

One of my Thai colleagues once told me  she did not understand this note at all, and after I explained to her she then said “Oh, but why don’t they simply say that the machine is noisy, please close the door?” – Well probably because the idea was to be super nice about it and not to offend anyone by posting a note that could have come across as  a bit directive maybe?  Analogy + English simply did not work here, and this helped me understand to get rid of useless decorated babble and go straight to the point when I want something.

Since then my life is much easier.

We learn Thai, (we try) it can be funny at times (we suck so far) but the effort is always very much appreciated. As said before, we have no language roots in common, so we develop our own mnemonic method: for Kop Kun Francois hears Katun ( a roller coaster in Mirabilandia, Italy) where Louise used to hear Cancun, and  in “Proooni pop kan” (see you tomorrow) I happily hear popcorn…

In the end, it’s all a matter of references 🙂