Pages Navigation Menu

lost in translation – my B&B life

I have a few friends who also run B&B’s and whenever we get together, you can be sure that within minutes we’ll be sharing tips, recipes, a joke or a funny incident. Exactly a year ago my friend Liza encouraged me to write candidly about the joys (and frustrations) of running a guest house, categorized on my blog as “My B&B Life” . This week I want to tackle tricky issues around accents and cultural differences.

An Afrikaans speaking person will ask for breakfast at ‘half sewe’ (6h30) , someone from England will talk about ‘half seven’ (7h30) and another person may talk about ‘half past seven’ – three different meanings to similar-sounding request, fertile ground for misunderstandings! I’m sure fellow B&B owners will sympathise with my frustration (because it’s probably happened to them often!) when a guest who requested breakfast at 6.30 (which requires a wake-up time of 5.30 for the guest house owner) then casually waltzes in at 7.30. The problem is that you’ve been robbed of an hour of sleep with only yourself to blame as, chances are, you were the one who made the mistake with the half past six / half six story.

And then there are the incidents caused by accents – lost in translation in the true sense. A fellow guest house owner told me about one of her guests who asked in a strong ‘Indian’ accent whether her young employee (fresh out of high school, and not yet with an ear accustomed to foreign accents) had “toilet paper” . The young lady promptly went to get what she heard the guest had asked for – the guest was of course very surprised when she returned, as he had in fact asked for “today’s paper”! Fortunately the guest had a sense of humour and not only had a good laugh about the incident, but shared the joke with the guest house owner!

I recall another incident when I welcomed an American couple and the man informed me in a heavy drawl that “you South Africans have the most atrocious accents”… That got me laughing: for a moment I imagined what it would sound like if all South Africans suddenly spoke English with American accents. Again the guests were fortunately able to appreciate the humour.

Shall I be daring enough to tell about cultural differences making for ‘lost in translation’ incidents? I asked a Xhosa speaking guest what time he wanted breakfast the next morning and he answered: “about seven or eight. ” When I asked whether that would be seven or eight, he answered: “when a black man tells you seven or eight, it means you have to be ready from seven until nine”. Being in the hospitality business I saw to it that I was ready from seven until nine. The next morning, however, when he held up the empty coffee pot and called me with a brusque “hey, sisi, bring me more coffee”, I decided I had to draw the line! I told him firmly that I was not his ‘sisi’, and that I sensed a condescending tone in the manner that he addressed me, and while I was at it, I found his comment on arrival offensive too. He claimed that it was not wrong in his culture to speak like that. I must confess I was stumped – for all of 10 seconds! Of course one has to be sensitive to cultural differences, but there was something in his manner which seemed to go beyond that: arrogance is an unattractive quality in any culture surely!

Fortunately I can report that this kind of incident is very rare indeed – we all have our differences, but almost all misunderstandings are manageable if we approach it with humility and a willingness to see the funny side of things.

Which gets me to the topic of my next post: RIGHT OF ADMISSION RESERVED. Watch this space…

2 Comments

  1. the name “sisi” is absolutely not disrespectful in the African cultures, nor is being requested to refill the coffee cup in the manner you described. So, glad you took a deep breath, it’s only another difference in a way of thinking.

  2. The whole “half six” vs “Half past Six” stumped me as well when I moved to the UK for 2 years. The first month ( until I got used to the British way of speaking ) I had to repeatedly as my fellow colleagues what EXACT time they are talking about! Needless to say, it cause a lot of confusion and misunderstandings! We learn out of experience!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>