“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good,
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
Doesn’t that Animals song resonate with us all? Don’t we all, at heart, try to do our very best, and feel upset when we are misunderstood?
It affects us all. We act in what we think is the right way, only to find that some people don’t appreciate our intentions, never mind the results. And then there’s language; how it can mislead and baffle, instead of clarifying! Even when speaking our own language, we can be misunderstood.
I remember once doing a school assembly for my year group. Afterwards, one of the form teachers approached me angrily and told me that what I had said could easily be misinterpreted. Mortified, I immediately went round each and every tutor group, apologising, then explaining and clarifying. Interestingly, the pupils reassured me that they had fully understood my message in the first place, whereas that particular teacher had possibly been less disposed to hear the meaning rather than simply the words. It can happen.
Behaviour can be misunderstood too. Spanish parents used to complain when our UK students asked to wear seat belts. They thought our children were casting aspersions about their driving, whereas in fact it was simply that, in the UK, most of us always wear seatbelts. Even please and thank you were a minefield. UK parents thought the Spanish pupils were rude because they didn’t use these words, whereas Spanish parents thought our children were being cheeky, when they tagged them on to every utterance!
Sometimes, we try to be considerate or friendly and it is misinterpreted, particularly in a foreign country. Once, we tried to concede room to manoeuvre to another vehicle in a car park, only to be greeted with abuse and swearing. The Spanish driver thought we were being obstructive, when we were actually trying to help. Another time, my husband shouted a cheerful passing greeting to a Spanish golfer, who then took offence, declaring “No me conoce, así que no me hable”, you don’t know me so don’t speak to me. He presumably felt that the greeting was too informal for the circumstances, and was offended. In the same way, our small 4 year old daughter once entered some Japanese friends’ house without removing her shoes, and upset them in a way that was, to us, out of all proportion. Obviously, though, to them, it was a major broach of decorum.
But when it comes to language !ojo! The subtlety of language often passes way over our heads, particularly when it comes to double entendre. I used to teach my pupils an excellent song called “Me gustas tú”. It was great for showing them how this essential phrase works. However, it contained the lyrics “Me gusta correr”, which I happily translated, in my innocence, as “I like running”. I don’t think that that is quite what the singer had in mind!
My biggest and most public blunder happened on the first exchange that I led. It was 1994 and my Spanish was exceedingly rusty, which was precisely why I had set up the exchange in the first place. We were interviewed on the local TV station about our experiences, the visits, our expectations etc. Then they asked me why I liked Spain and I replied “Me gustan los españoles, son muy calientes”. No, no and no! All the families and all the pupils saw the interview, which was repeated several times on the local station. I don’t think I ever quite lived it down!