Recently a language-learner asked me:
Sometimes friends often ask me some questions,such as,
“Will you get married?””Do you have a boyfriend?“.
But, I think it is impolite to ask those questions at your first sentence, especially when we chat with each other for the first time.
Can you give me some opinions?
Here is my answer:
I personally think it is complicated.
Culture is always an important factor in communication.
After living in five countries on three continents for over five years each, I say this:
We cannot answer this question until we know more about the person, their culture, their age, the context and much more.
Of course respect, caution, and great humility are essential in multi-lingual multi-cultural situations.
But we need more.
To illustrate this I want to tell you my story when I, as a man, was forced to ask about a woman’s marital status.
One time in a bookshop I had to arrange to meet a woman who was a good friend of a friend, but unknown to me. Her “male guardian” was not going to be with her.
This was a woman in her thirties, speaking three languages, a Doctor, and a teacher at a university.
Even though I am a married man such a meeting is often strictly forbidden in this particular country.
You can easily go to jail for this!
So in this context I had to know the woman’s marital status beforehand, her religious values, the approval of her “legal guardian” (her uncle), the practical enforcement of the laws of the country and more.
So I had a lot of questions to ask!
Here we needed to make arrangements between a fluent English and French-speaking cosmopolitan woman from Lebanon, an uncle from Lebanon, and a well-travelled man from New Zealand in a public Saudi Arabian context.
Of course I wanted to respect Saudi values, but what were they exactly?
In fact this meeting was easily the most difficult intercultural meeting that I have ever had.
In the end our meeting was a great success, she felt respected, and we are now good friends.
Because of this experience and many others my lessons always include the issue of intercultural understanding. If there is an opportunity I always discuss this with clients.
Effective communication in a second language involves much more than just words and grammar!