I work for a large company, and float around at various clinics, often working with people I have never met. Two weeks ago, after being with the company for already a year, I had my first feedback session from an Area Director (AD), who had never yet met me. Those meetings (I’ve had dozens of them over my career) are a time to tell the employee any complaints or areas of needed improvement.
The AD hesitantly shared a complaint from some unnamed employee who accused me of being prejudice. The day of the incident I was working with a new physician who was a young polish woman with a heavy accent. The offense, my AD told me, was that I asked the physician, “How do Polish dogs bark?”
On hearing this, I laughed. The AD was surprised and said, “You see, you have to be careful what you say to people and how you react.” To which I replied, “You mean because it is giving away my prejudice that she is a dumb female foreigner, right?”
The AD looked at me startled by my apparent blunt bigotry. Then I said, “Look, you don’t know my background at all, so here it is ….” (here is my language background, if don’t know). After sharing my cultural experiences, the AD was visibly much more relaxed. Then I told her that every language uses different words to describe the sounds that animals make, they are very different from language to language. For instance, in English dogs say “woof, woof”, in Polish they say “hau hau”, in Japanese they say “wan wan” and in Hindi they say “bho bho”.
The sounds animals make is not common sense? These sounds are called onomatopoeias — for a fantastic list of comparative sounds between languages, see this wiki page.
After educating my AD she apologized for this horrific misunderstanding. Then I pointed out a worse irony: For though the polish doctor and I had a great time with the discussion (both of us having lived long times as foreigners), the listeners themselves (Americans who only speak one language) probably had a hidden prejudice which I lacked, and they themselves probably thought that the poor woman doctor was dumb because she spoke with an accent, and thus they thought I was picking on her. Arghhhh!