A Comparison Of Words In Different Cultures


Here is another cultural comparison of words.

When you live in different countries you realize that people have very different definitions to common words.

No matter what the translation is, some words just do not translate perfectly.  That is because they have a different meaning in different cultures.

Here are a few from my personal observations.

A Difference In Respect

Politeness is one most people pick up.  It has a complex definition.  Many different things come into play with varying nuances:

  • What you say
  • What you don’t say
  • How you act
  • How you don’t act

One of the ingredients to politeness is respect.  And this can be comical.  What is considered respectful in one country can be considered disrespectful in another.

For example, when beginning a business meeting:

In most southern or Latin European countries, some social interaction is expected before starting.

People like to know who you are and they also like to get a more rounded picture of you as a person.  You can talk about your recent vacation or new baby.  If you make a joke to start your presentation, people will respond to it.

But this is not the case in all European countries.

In Switzerland, people usually want to get straight to business.  And the same social interaction could be seen as a lack of respect for their time.

Do the Swiss like social interaction, friendly conversation and jokes?  Of course they do.  It’s just that they prefer a different setting.

Respect almost always has a different meaning in different cultures.  Sometimes there are many similarities between cultures, and the differences can go unnoticed.

A Difference In Civic Duties

Different cultures have different ways of expressing their civic duties, or sense of responsibility towards neighbors and fellow countryman.

Again, these are my personal observations.

In France people prefer to pay out of their pockets and not with their person or their time.

The cost of their social security system is heavy, but it takes care of everyone.  The French

  • Never have to look at their bank balance before getting health care
  • Do not worry about the price of health treatment
  • Have unemployment benefits that actually do provide a good level of assistance and give time to get back on their feet – approximately 60% of their salary, for 2 years, for most people.

Americans prefer to give with their person and not their pocketbooks:

  • It is common for neighbors to help when others are in need
  • Volunteering is more socially popular

Of course, both systems have been abused and there are flaws to both.

But look at the two different ways these two cultures approach civic duties.  If both countries were to exchange systems, they would probably not work at all.

Different Interpretations

The different meanings of words leads to different ways of doing things.  When comparing two different ways of doing things, there are no right or wrong ways.  They are just different.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts and comments below.

Photos from Shutterstock.

  Filed under: Cross-Cultural Communication

Cindy King