07/06/2011 05:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"Lost in Translation" Takes on a Whole New Meaning

A colleague of mine here in Asia sent me this photo (below). It's a yellow hazard sign, the kind commonly seen propped up in public areas in airports and train stations to alert passersby that the floor is wet and therefore slippery. I'm sure the phrasing of the original warning is correct, but the English translation inspired a chuckle -- "Carefully Slip and Fall Down."


Some might say that it is not culturally sensitive to giggle at these incorrect translations. I actually think quite the opposite is true. If we lose our sense of humor about our differences, whether they be cultural, political or linguistic, we run the risk of not wanting to get out of our comfort zone and take the time to understand each other. "Different" is a far more intriguing notion than "the same," right?

In my travels, I've been on the receiving end of the chuckling many times. I remember about 20 years ago, my wife and I celebrated our honeymoon by traveling through the newly accessible Central Europe. One day we got lost, so I tried, in my best (non-existent) Polish, to ask a few locals for directions back to the village in which we were staying. Every response included an awkward laugh and no real assistance with walking directions. Finally, cobbling together an appropriate question in German solved the mystery of the laughter -- apparently, according to the next local I met, I'd just spent quite a few minutes asking complete strangers "Where is the underwear?"

The point of these little misunderstandings is that it is so easy for things to literally get lost in translation. That can't be an excuse for curtailing the conversation altogether. Even when a common language is being used, a simple wrap-up phrase at the end of a conference call, such as "Let's talk about it tomorrow," doesn't necessarily translate, because our tomorrows are different depending on our native time zone.

Being in China again reminds me of my first trip here. I was famished from an afternoon of sightseeing, so I made for the nearest restaurant. It had the feel of a place for locals. I sat and waited, getting more ravenous by the minute. After awhile, to my frustration, I noticed others were being served while it seemed I was being ignored. It was unclear to me why, but I thought perhaps they did not want a foreigner in their restaurant. Eventually, I became so irritated I got up and blocked the waiter. He looked quite surprised and suddenly seemed willing to take my order. Later, when I recounted the story to other travelers, they informed me that it was necessary to be quite assertive with restaurant staff. From then on I observed that this was indeed normal Chinese behavior. So what I initially took as offense -- a prejudice against me as a foreigner -- was simply a cultural norm lost in translation.

Adaptability is key, and it goes both ways. I've observed the Chinese adapting to the habits of the foreigners living and working in their country as well. For instance, I rarely wear a suit, almost never a tie and not even a jacket so much these days. This business casual approach, which is pretty common in the U.S. (After all, when was the last time you saw a billionaire in a tie on the cover of a business magazine?) definitely raises some eyebrows in China but it is being tolerated by my colleagues here. In fact, one of our marketing execs here said that, probably not surprisingly, advertising types here are starting to loosen up their wardrobes, although most business leaders remain quite formal in their attire.

The result of using our cultural or language barriers as an excuse to not try to make things work can be costly in business, and specifically in the hospitality industry. So, I'm all for keeping our sense of humor when trying to reach out and understand each other. It's good for business, but it's also kind of fun.