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  • Rena Zendedel

Do we actually understand each other? Moving beyond the language.

Have you ever found yourself in a communicative situation where you speak the language, but actually you do not understand what is going on? I have, many times. As a foreigner in a new country (I came to the Netherlands some 20 years ago), I learned the language quite fast and well enough to be able to express myself, but it took me some extra time to acquire the rules beyond it, the rules outside the language circle – the languaculture, as Michael Agar calls it. His book “Language shock: Understanding the culture of conversation” is a great read for everyone who is interested in language, culture and communication, and I will do my best to briefly explain what the book is about, by using some personal anecdotes.

Agar argues that it is not enough to know the language – that is, words and grammar to be able to communicate - you should also learn the culture. What is in the minds of people you’re communicating with? How does their world look like? Agar compares US migrant workers with little knowledge of English to PhDs in English Language and Literature who have studied abroad and have never lived in the US. Although the migrant workers don’t build exquisite sentences in English like the foreign PhDs in English Language and Literature do, they are better communicators according to Agar. They know the American languaculture, they live in it.

In fact, just the other day, a Dutch colleague told me a nice anecdote about her stay in England. She lived in England for some time with her husband and children. Her English is excellent; however, things were going wrong once she had invited some “other mothers” from her son’s school to have lunch together. “Wonderful idea!” they said, but they never came back to her, and she didn’t understand why. Later on she learned that “Wonderful idea!” for polite British might mean as much as “Nah, really does not feel like it”. That is the languaculture you usually don’t learn in books, but which you have to acquire on your own - often by getting into awkward situations.

I did so myself many times when I first came to the Netherlands. In Azerbaijan, where I come from, “No” sometimes means “Yes”, or at least “Ask again”. This is an absolute rule of politeness when people offer you something, for instance, an invitation for a cup of tea. “No, I really should be going” is then the correct answer which in fact means: “Oh, I would definitely like to stay, but do ask me again if you really mean it.” Now, if you don’t really mean it, you don’t ask again and nobody is offended, but if you really mean it, you should do some effort and show your hospitality by offering a couple of times. This is how people in Asian cultures avoid face-threating situations, which in my first years fiercely collided with the Dutch directness.

Luckily, I have acquired some languaculture since then. So now, I say “yes” immediately when I want a cup of tea. Also, I don’t offer my lunch to everybody just out of politeness, because I know for sure now that the Dutch will not refuse out of politeness, but will simply eat my lunch – as it happened in the old days when I was a school kid. An empty stomach has taught me some lessons of Dutch languaculture. To prevent you from these experiences, I suggest you read Agar’s book for more captivating stories. “Politeness aside, it is a great read!”


Agar, M. (1996). Language shock: Understanding the culture of conversation. New York, NY: William Morrow.

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