The Art of Miscommunication

It’s not an uncommon situation.  Being in a foreign country, clumsily trying to navigate the native language, and receiving blank stares – or, scowls – in return.

That’s exactly what Deborah Fallows – wife of famed journalist James Fallows – describes in her recent interview on NPR and writes about in her new book Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language.  When Fallows accompanied her husband to China, she had taken a few semesters of Mandarin. But when they arrived, she found it a real challenge to communicate.

Fallows is no stranger to foreign tongues. She earned her Ph.D. in linguistics and speaks half-a-dozen languages.  But she learned there’s an art to mastering a tonal language in which one syllable can have many, many meanings. And more often than not, Fallows felt she was mastering the art of miscommunication.

In one humorous anecdote, the author describes her effort to order “take-out” – or “dabao” from a Shanghai Taco Bell.  She tries every possible tonal combination, but the server couldn’t understand her request. He finally retrieved three other employees from the back, and Fallows continued to repeat dabao, dabao, dabao to them.  Finally – finally! – one of the men said “ah, dabao!”  And, just like that, she struck the chord and got her tacos to go.

For Fallows, hitting the right note was a cultural journey. But in communications, being on-key is everything.  You just can’t afford to be tone-deaf.