Intercultural communication over coffee

  • Receptionist: Help yourself to a cap!
  • Shiva: Pardon me?
  • Receptionist: Help yourself to a cap!
  • Shiva: [blank stare]

This was a conversation I had in the reception area of a storage company on one of my first days in Australia back in 2008. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary ‘cap’ can refer to (a) ‘a head covering,’ (b) ‘a natural cover or top,’ (c) ‘something that serves as a cover or protection,’ (d) ‘an overlaying or covering structure,’ (e) ‘a paper or metal container holding an explosive charge,’ (f) ‘an upper limit,’ (g) ‘the symbol ∩ indicating the intersection of two sets’ or (h) ‘a cluster of molecules or chemical groups bound to one end or a region of a cell, virus, or molecule.’ While I may not have had all these definitions at the top of my head, as someone who had studied English as a foreign language in Iran for many years, the general thrust of all these meanings of ‘cap’ was clear to me. The problem was that none of these meanings of ‘cap’ seemed to make sense in the context in which I found myself.

While I was frantically trying to figure out in my mind what I was supposed to help myself to, the receptionist noticed my incomprehension and beckoned me to follow him into a corner where there was a coffee machine. He pointed at the coffee machine and slowly started to explain that this was a coffee machine, that coffee was a beverage, that it was nice, and that Australians liked to drink coffee, and that there were different types, and that a cappuccino was particularly nice because it had a frothy top.

As it dawned on me that in the receptionist’s variety of English ‘cap’ had nothing to do with ‘coverings’ of any kind but was short for ‘cappuccino,’ I was mortified. The receptionist had thought my lack of comprehension was a sign not of a linguistic problem but of my ignorance and backwardness. I was so offended that anyone would think a sophisticated Tehrani like myself didn’t know about coffee! How dare he be so ignorant, insular and condescending?! Even so, I could not confront him. Fuming inside, I meekly accepted my bitterest-ever cappuccino. I took all the blame to myself for not having adequate English to have a smooth communication with ‘a native speaker’.

Intercultural communication over coffee (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This humiliating encounter made me question the many years of English language learning I had been engaged in since my early childhood. Despite all my best efforts of many years and the investment of my parents, here I was in Australia incapable of effortlessly and gracefully accepting a cup of coffee without being taken for a barbarian. It all seemed extremely unfair and in the past four years I’ve often experienced a nagging feeling of jealousy that my English was still deficient despite all my striving while ‘native speakers’ could have it all – and without the least bit of effort!

I have also come to realise that ‘English,’ like all languages, is dynamic and subject to change and that even ‘native English speakers’ encounter new words every now and then and miscommunicate in unfamiliar contexts. This realisation has been one step towards healing my tarnished linguistic confidence.

Trying to extend myself and to understand my in-between position better, I undertook a postgraduate course in Cross-Cultural Communication, where most of the teaching and reading I was exposed to stressed cultural differences as the source of miscommunication in intercultural communication. This has been an ongoing source of puzzlement for me: in theory, it made perfect sense that Australian and Persians, for instance, had different cultural values and orientations and so, of course, there would be problems when they meet. In practice, however, none of the miscommunication I have experienced in Australia seems to have anything to do with culture. My humiliation at the hands of the receptionist had nothing to do with the fact that Persians prefer indirectness and elaborate politeness routines where Australians are direct and to the point. On the contrary, as far as culture was concerned, this was a misunderstanding between two coffee lovers, i.e. culturally similar people.

Despite the fact that I now hold an MA in Cross-Cultural Communication, my feelings of English deficiency together with a lack of real cultural differences has remained a brainteaser until a short while ago when I read Ingrid Piller’s new book Intercultural Communication and there the explanation leapt out at me from Chapter 10: when misunderstandings in intercultural communication are derived from linguistic problems, they are often unfairly attributed to cultural issues as soon as it comes to “English-language learners, particularly if their proficiency is more than just basic” (Piller, 2011, p. 147).

So, my English is the proud result of my efforts, and Australians and Persians are pretty similar. It’s just that newcomers and old-timers in this country find themselves in positions of unequal power (or legitimacy) which they like to dress up as cultural differences.

Iranian coffee culture, by the way, dates back to the 9th century!

Author Shiva Motaghi Tabari

Dr. Shiva Motaghi-Tabari received her PhD in Linguistics from Macquarie University, where she is now an Honorary Postdoctoral Associate. Her PhD research focused on the intersection of parental and child language learning in migration contexts. She also holds an MA in Crosscultural Communication from the University of Sydney. Her research interests include intercultural communication, family and bilingual education and migration studies.

More posts by Shiva Motaghi Tabari
  • PeterL

    As a Canadian (native speaker of English), I wouldn’t understand “have a cap”, although if there happened to be a coffee machine nearby, I *might* be able to guess.

  • Annamarie

    Your post made me think about the emotions I feel as a foreigner in Japan when misunderstandings get attributed to cultural issues when they are really (or mostly) linguistic issues.

    But first, my Aussie coffee misunderstanding story: on our first morning in Australia, in totally ignorance of Melbourne coffee ordering procedures, my husband and I went to a Melbourne cafe and asked for “Two coffees, please.” After much back-and-forth with the cashier, we learned that we really wanted “Two long blacks.” Superficially, a similar experience to yours; emotionally, totally different: for me, the misunderstanding was a funny linguistic episode that became one of our memories from the trip. The difference, of course, is that no one took it upon themselves to explain to me about coffee. My North American accent probably steered the clerk into thinking it was a linguistic rather than cultural issue.

    Back in Japan, though, as a non-native speaker of Japanese, I well understand the humiliation you felt at the hands of the receptionist. I often feel there’s no outlet for the emotion though. When people mistake my linguistic mistakes for cultural ignorance, I sense they’re motivated to explain Japanese culture to me out of kindness, not condescension. It’s hard to take offense at kindness, but, as you wrote, the end result is tarnished confidence.

  • vahid

    Very interesting and insightful, indeed.
    I personally experienced similar problems during my stay in Australia.
    To give you an example, it took me a while to realize that “fishbowl” was not “a glass bowl one could keep fish in” but a small glass room in the linguistics department!

  • Thanks, Shiva. My students in Intercultural Issues read your post last night. We had a lively discussion on various stereotypes of cultural, ethnic and racial groups in Thailand, and on the limitation of the idea of English as a free ticket to global citizenship.

  • shiva

    Thanks Vahid! I should go and see where the “fishbowl” is before any intercultural communication breakdown happens! Thanks for letting me know! 😉

  • shiva

    Thanks Kimie! I’m sure many of us have experienced similar encounters. As we all might have experienced, these kind of incidents can have unpleasant impacts they are not analysed from the right angle…

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  • Dariush Izadi

    Great post Shiva!
    The same thing has happened to me but I’ve had trouble recognizing Australian Accent particularly the sound “a” as in “say” in Australian Accent though:)! I don’t know if this has occurred to you or not!

    I remember when I first came to Australia, which was nearly 4 years ago, I had to fill out some student application forms and submit them to the Immigration in Sydney in person. I had to stand in line for a bit before it was my turn to be served! Once it was my turn, the receptionist at the counter, a man in his thirties, asked for my application forms. When I gave him my application forms, he turned back to me saying that there were some problems with my applicAtion. Having thought that he said “my actions” and of course having been offended, I abruptly replied back saying “my actions”?! “What do you mean by my actions?! While laughing, he said “applicAtion” speaking with his strong Australian accent again! He repeated that phrase for a couple of times until I asked him to spell it for me:).

    Research into intercultural communication has shown that it is often not culturally specific beliefs that create misunderstanding. Rather, misunderstanding may occur where “language choice, language proficiency and language diversity are ignored or trivialized” (Piller, 2011 p. 152) as in my case!

    Piller, I. (2011). Intercultural communication :a critical introduction Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

  • Hanna Torsh

    Hi Shiva

    I love this story and your analysis of it – and this is exactly the kind of language encounter that is often invisible as a language encounter as Ingrid points out so well. In the language classroom, the lack of a vocabulary and a framework to describe this kind of misunderstanding means it often becomes a kind of vocabulary list – barbie means bbq, mossie mean mosquito etc., rather than a discussion of who gets to define the English used in the conversation and why.

    You might be interested in a story from Uzolins (1993) on English Language classes for migrants taking place in the 1940s:

    The standard adopted [for good pronunciation] was ‘educated Australian’, sometimes to the bewilderment of our pupils on hearing ‘Ayerdoonmite?’ or ‘Archergontergetcherpie?’ outside the classroom. (Crossley 1948 p.5 in Uzolins 1993)

    In other words, even though the English surrounding them was clearly not ‘educated Australian’ the teachers had to teach this approach because it was ‘better’ English. This persists today in Academic English and other English for Specific Purposes curricula, where lecturers use of colloquialisms may baffle migrants or international students but it is rarely dealt with as a language issue.


  • Eva

    Hello Shiva!
    I wouldn’t understand cap either, to be honest–taking into consideration my general stress when I engage in conversations with native speakers of English (I am Greek) along with my ignorance of the particular slang (and I am an English Language student and learner of English for over 10 years!).