Do You Make These Cultural Mistakes When You Speak English?

cultural fluencyDo you know how to respond appropriately when you don’t understand something in English? Have you ever gotten strange vibes from a native speaker when you know that your grammar was perfect?

If you’re like most non-native English speakers (of all levels), you are probably making a series of subtle, but significant cultural mistakes when you respond to native speakers.

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Even if you have perfect grammar, knowing exactly how to respond when you don’t understand somebody is very important not just for your English fluency, but also for your cultural fluency.

After all, you aren’t really fluent in the language until you’re fluent in the culture.

What is cultural fluency? It’s the part of communication that transcends grammar. A lot of it involves customs, attitudes, body language, and communication tendencies that aren’t directly related to the literal meaning of our words.

This article will explore the top ways people violate English cultural communication tendencies when responding to a speaker they don’t understand. Here’s the top 6:

The Most Common Indelicate Responses

1. “What?”

2. “I didn’t/don’t Understand”

3.  “uhhh?” or some other sound

4.  Confused/puzzled look

5.  Body language expressing fear or frustration toward the speaker

6.  Looking for help from another person (*beginners)

*My teaching experience is in Latin America. Other cultures may have different cultural tendencies. 

An Everyday Example of Indelicate Cultural Communication

I recently had a 10 to 15 minute conversation with a guy who had an upper intermediate English level.

The guy knew his grammar, he had a great vocabulary, and even though his listening needed some work, he had the language skills to communicate fluently.

BUT (and this is an important BUT) I didn’t feel good talking to him because he wasn’t able to flow with the subtle cultural elements of English communication. This is cultural fluency.

Here’s a small and simple piece of our conversation:

ME: So, do you ever plan on getting back into music? (normal speed)

GUY: What? (sharp “T” sound)

ME: (I repeated what I said, but slower)

GUY: I didn’t understand.

He kept saying “what,” and “I don’t understand” and even his body language and facial expressions made it seem like he was blaming me for him not understanding me.

I did not feel natural or comfortable speaking with him. In fact, I wanted to switch to Portuguese (I live in Brazil). I felt more authentic speaking Portuguese with him.

A few years ago, I would not have understood why I felt uncomfortable speaking with him. Maybe I would have doubted his English, or thought he was weird. Now I know that the reason was simple: he lacked cultural fluency in this one small part of his English.

Because I’ve seen this happen so many times, I knew that the solution was simple, and it only took a few minutes to explain. Very few English teachers, native or non-native speaking, know that this is happening.

Even fewer teach effective solutions.

Example I (No Use of These Phrases)

Example II (Effective Use of These Phrases)

What You Are Communicating

The way you respond when you don’t understand something can communicate many things. This is why you should pay attention to the words you choose, as well as the body language, tone, and facial expressions.

I don’t/ didn’t understand: This is very common in Brazil, because it’s a direct translation from Portuguese. When non-native speakers say “I didn’t understand” as a response to not understanding something, there’s a subtle sense that the speaker is blaming me for their lack of understanding.

I understand that the cultural dynamic is different, but by not asking me, or saying “sorry?,” as you would in English, it feels like they are not taking responsibility, not being proactive about understanding, and not politely asking me to repeat.

In English, we are often overly polite. So a short answer like, “I didn’t understand,” can come off very rude.

“What?”: This is technically correct English, and native speakers even say this, in certain situations, to respond when they don’t understand. However, I’ve observed that a lot of English learners don’t use this correctly. They commit one of the following mistakes:

  • They use “what” all the time, when native speakers use it only in certain, informal situations.
  • They say it really emphatically so that it almost feels like an interrogation.
  • They emphasize the “t” at the end, so it just sounds too sharp. Native speakers use what’s called a “stop consonant” with this. Try putting the emphasis on the “Wa” instead of on the “T”.

“Uhhhh?”: This is another thing that varies from country to country, but when somebody doesn’t understand me, and they say “uhhh?” or some other response, it feels slightly aggressive or cutting.

There are times when a native speaker would say this (in very subtle, informal ways), but in my experience, non-native speakers say this with an element of fear and/or confusion that can cause slight emotional discomfort for me.

Body Language: You cannot talk about this subject without emphasizing the importance of body language, facial expressions, the tone of your voice, because this is the most important part of communication. After all, psychologists report that as much as 80% of communication is non-verbal. Here are the top body language problems I see when people don’t understand me speaking English:

  • The look on their face communicates fear, confusion, discomfort, or surprise.  Appropriate communication would be to relax your face and express interest in understanding, and clarifying what you were confused about.
  • Their body language withdraws from communication. It’s as if they aren’t trying to understand. Appropriate communication would be to learn forward, with a sincere interest to understand/ find out what was said.
  • The tone of the voice should be calm. There’s nothing wrong with not understanding somebody, but acting scared and confused will only make the speaker uncomfortable. The correct tone should be calm, confident, and inquisitive.
  • Because of all of this, it often seems like the person responding is blaming the speaker that they don’t understand and demanding that they repeat (with the words and/or body language).

Cultural Fluency: The Polite Way to Respond

Let’s face it, nobody is going to correct you because these are not grammar mistakes. Very few people, native speakers or non-natives, understand what is happening. Something feels not quite right, but most people just attribute it to a problem with your English.

So what is the proper way to respond when you don’t understand somebody? This article has explored MISTAKES OF CULTURAL FLUENCY.

In the second part of this lesson, we will talk more about HOW YOU SHOULD COMMUNICATE for cultural fluency, and make sure that you are communicating with 100% confidence.

Part two will deal with cultural fluency in English, from body language, to word selection, and an attitude that facilitates polite, confident, and culturally fluent communication.

A big way you can start right now is by joining thousands of English speakers from all around the world in the Real Life English International Community.

Part II: 7 Phrases That Will Drastically Improve Your Cultural Fluency

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  • These aren't the rules of English. They are the author's personal preferences and peeves. It's one thing to write an article about "Things that bother me about the way non-native speakers ask questions" or "My advice for fluid speech," but those things should not be disguised as universal rules. Own up and admit that this is about you.

    "In English, we are often overly polite." Compared to what? No we're not! I'm a native speaker and I do all six of the things on this author's list when, because of background noise or field-specific terminology, I don't understand what someone said. "What" is indeed what English speakers say when they don't understand something. Pronouncing the T is correct, even if most native speakers don't bother. Bottom line, communication is by definition about more than one person. The author doesn't like it when people point out that yes, some part of the hearer's failure to understand, whether it's 1% or 99%, is on him.

    • Justin says:

      Hey Diana, Thanks for contributing to the RLE blog by bringing a another perspective to the table. I’ll do my best to respond to your feedback in the second part of this article next week. Sign up for our mailing list and we’ll let you know when it comes out. Stay tuned. Cheers!

    • Rafael Porto says:

      Diana, these tips are for those interested in carrying out a conversation as polite as possible. Specially in work places, where good manners are prized and where everybody is judging you silently.

      It's not about rules, but tips. Just like that! 😉

      • Justin says:

        You got it, Rafael! Thanks for your support.

  • Don Liston says:

    It is very discouraging to see people trying to define what grammar is, whether is has to do with an individual person, etc. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, published in 2004, says:
    A grammar is a description of a language. The structure of every language is clearly a set of rules that must follow the rules of logic. The linguistic analysis of words (morphology) and sentences (syntax) is clearly described by grammar that has been around since English was considered a language.

    • Justin says:

      Thanks for the comment, Don. What exactly are you trying to say in relation to the article? It’s just that this article is not about grammar. It’s about the cultural aspect of the language. Thanks for contributing.

  • Justin says:

    Hey Elivan, Thanks for taking the time to read and contribute with a comment. What do you mean by “wha a u on about matey?” By the way, it’s not ignoring the T on “What,” but rather recognizing it as a STOP CONSONANT (and not a sharp T)- You can learn more about it here I’ll write on and respond more in-depth in the second part of the article (although it’s not clear what your specific objections you have or why you think it’s “awfully pointless.”) At any rate, I invite you to sign up for the mailing list and we’ll let you know when the second installment comes out.

  • Justin says:

    Hey Gustavo, Thanks a lot for the nice comment. I really appreciate it. Take it easy!

  • Andrêssa Lis says:

    Hey! I'm a new member of the RLE Community! Your articles are now part of my daily routine… I'm so glad I found this website! Can't wait to read the second part! =)

    • Hey Andrêssa, Thanks a lot for the nice comment. I'm glad you're enjoying the community and learning. It seems like you're doing pretty well. Take care!

  • This is not accurate. It depends where you live in the US and what about American ppl speaking Spanish, for example? They are clueless about sth and they go yes even when they don't understand! That's worse than admitting you don't understand sth

  • JJ OL says:

    This Article is really awesome…. I didn't know this… a complex info but easily explained it! thank you for shared with us! right on the target! I wish were more people like you teaching here in venezuela! this Article is really awesome for real…. best of success!

  • Thanks JJ! I really appreciate your nice feedback!

  • It's a wonderful article; these mistakes are unknown in my english.

  • Danimal Tafoya says:

    Hi Fernando. How is everything in Colombia? Please say hello to everyone. I can't wait to go back and visit. I really miss that place! Take care!

  • Hello, Daniel; I miss you , too. Everybody waits for you and the family here in Colombia.

  • Hola Fernando que alegria saber de ti,se te ve muy bien gracias a dios buscame en facebook Esperanza

  • Este es el correo de Fabi un abrazo

  • Any language is culturally bounded, but the learners must understand that it’s not the grammar of the language. At the same time, knowledge of the cultural background of a language makes it easier to learn the language.

    • Agnieszka from RealLife English says:

      You got it right!