Working cross-culturally, we frequently encounter moments where we aren’t quite sure how to take people. Are they joking? Are they serious? Is something being implied? Of course, this also happens in the U.S. while speaking English, even with close friends, but when speaking a foreign language and interacting with people whose physical and social cues don’t line up with our own, the propensity to “be taken” by others rises.
Two situations that illustrate the point perfectly came up while Scott and I were eating with our Kyrgyz driver and his cousin a couple weeks ago. It all started when our driver’s cousin offered us vodka. He was smiling and friendly.
“No thanks,” I said, “I don’t drink vodka.”
“It is haraam for you, right?” said Urmat, our driver.
“Yes, for me, vodka is haraam,” I answered, figuring that was accurate enough to describe why I don’t drink.
A little time passed in conversation as we enjoyed the homemade butter, homemade jams, fresh bread, and so on.
“Y’know, we also have [something garbled] growing out back,” the cousin said.
“I’m sorry, what is that?”
“Narcotiki,” he helpfully generalized to the Russian for “narcotics,” and I realized the original term I heard was marijuana. “Do you want some narcotics?”
I was surprised and unsure how to respond to my grinning host.
“I probably don’t need any, thanks,” I said hastily.
Urmat smirked and piped up, “Thanks, that’s good.”
The jovial mood of the conversation makes me think these little offers were friendly gestures and only half serious, though when I spotted marijuana growing on their property later (it grows wild in ditches and draws in Kyrgyzstan), it did make me pause to wonder about my assessment of the situation. I’m reminded of the difficulty of sorting out social cues, body language, and context in an unfamiliar culture. In the end, I’ll stick with my hunch that he was joking, but I’m just not quite entirely sure…