Lessons Learned in April

"Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon absolute truth."

~Friedrich Nietzsche

When you live in a country for a long time there are more intricacies revealed to the trickiness of intercultural communication. There are times when I send an email or ask a question in Sweden (in English or Swedish) where when I get an answer, I know that something was missed along the way. That may be because what I said didn't come across clearly or what was said back wasn't said in a way that I was able to grasp. Such is the case when one party or the other is speaking a language that is not their first.

But going deeper than that, I realize more and more how words are used differently across different cultures. There are a lot of similar sounding and looking words between Swedish and English; they are both Germanic and share some common grammatical structures, most Swedish words (not all of course) can translate over pretty well. Most Swedes have a very long and good relationship with speaking and understanding English, so there are rarely circumstances when the completely wrong word is used. But because words are shaped by the culture you live in, it has taken me a long time to develop the reflex to understand how Swedes might use an English word appropriately for them but that seems just slightly to the right or left from what I would have used. It's not them using English poorly, it's their understanding of the word based on how they use it in English or the equivalent Swedish word.

For example, in one of my early interactions with a Swede, they were telling me an idea for what we could do when we hung out the next day. They said, "I'd like to challenge you." I looked back blankly, not knowing what to say. Challenge me? To what? I'm lost! We quickly clarified that their idea was to play a game or do something competitive. Which made sense. That was the first of many similar situations.
Another common example is the way Swedes use the word "cozy." I've written before about how important that word is for Scandinavians. Early on in the days of hanging out with Swedes, I would hear it for many different things and be a bit confused. One girl saw how Shoreline Beach Cafe in Santa Barbara had some chairs and tables literally placed right in the sand, and she exclaimed, "how cozy!" When some of us were driving around to look at the houses in Beverly Hills and Bel Air one time, one guy said that the houses on a particular block were quite cozy. In neither of these contexts would I have used cozy as the descriptive word. But after coming to Sweden I understood better why it's used so much, as they apply it much more widely here. It could mean a lovely dinner by the lake or it could mean that one is being affectionate and sweet.

And since I've been in Sweden, this has happened with dozens of other words. The word "good" can be used differently here. If someone thinks someone else is really attractive, they may commonly say, "they look good." None of this American superlative business with "smoking hot" or "totally gorgeous." Just, good. Or when someone said I was being "harsh"... it didn't seem like quite the right word to me so I looked up various translations of it on a reliable Swedish-English online dictionary and asked a friend how it is used in Sweden, and as I'd suspected, it doesn't have as severe a meaning here, so then I reacted accordingly. And then you have the word love; saying "I love you" in Swedish carries a much deeper meaning than how we use it in English. Many Swedes don't even say this regularly to their families. Meanwhile, some Swedes have been quite amused when they go live in the States for an exchange or something and have their new American housemates or sports team members throwing out "I love yous" as they part ways after a fun night or something. Conversely, in Swedish, "to be in love" seems to carry less meaning here than when we say it in English in America. Saying the equivalent in Swedish can mean strong feelings, more than average, but not very near to how I and most Americans I know would the English term.

I hope this is making sense. What this is teaching me is to pick my words more carefully myself, and to, even more than I used to before, consider the context from which the other person is speaking. I think most of us have had miscommunications with most people in our lives, and there is every reason to think about what we and others say more intentionally. Relationships can suffer, I can think of personal examples, when someone who grew up in the same country as you, speaking the same language, has a different understanding of what a word does and should mean. You don't have to live abroad to learn this lesson.


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