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Howard's End: Language Skills Needed For Apologies

There are fundamental cultural differences between ourselves and our Asian neighbours, language translation difficulties being the most obvious, so if the Government and business is serious about our exporting future into Asia they had better lift their game. John Howard writes.

It's been my experience in dealing with Asian cultures that most Asian nations believe that foreigners say "sorry" so often as to render it meaningless.

In China apologies are taken so seriously that a remorseful sole must often seek redemption by spending $10 with an apology company because of the terrible risk of losing face by having one's personal apology refused.

Behaviour which brings the need for an apology is best avoided in China as their giving and acceptance require expressions of emotion which are complicated by issues of face.

Unless you are aware of the cultural and linguistic nuances' you can very easily fall into a hole which can cost you dearly.

Relying on a translator from the host country or company is not a good idea either, because from your "foreign" cultural perspective, you might be talking chalk, but from the translators cultural perspective, they are talking cheese.

Westerners usually start from the law to discuss problems, but Asians are generally not so legalistic. They take more of an emotional stand. For example, "How come your plane flew all the way to China and crashed into our plane," the Chinese people asked of Americans.

The standoff between China and the U.S. over the spy plane incident and the letter of regret from President George W. Bush highlighted the cultural and language difficulties between two culturally different powers which almost caused a major incident.

It's not too over the top to say that militarily the doomsday clock had started to tick. It was only the ramifications to trade between the two countries which ultimately stopped it.

The letter of regret which George Bush sent did not use the term that China had insisted upon - "daoqian" - a formal apology that accepts blame.

But even what the letter did say was open to differing interpretations. Therefore, it's important when dealing with our Asian neighbours that New Zealand business people fully understand the cultural and language meanings behind what is being said.

For example, the Chinese Foreign Ministry portrayed the letter as an expression of " shenbiao qianyi" - which translates as deep apology or regret.

But that term doesn't appear in the Chinese language version of the letter. It says Bush was " feichang baoqian" - or extremely sorry. (that the plane had landed without permission).

Bush also expressed "feichang wanxi" - or extreme sympathy. ( for the family of missing pilot, Wang Wei.)

But it's more than that.

There are critical shortages of people with the ability to understand the culture and languages of other nations and this means the difference between being successful, being pushed aside or being the subject of a terrorist attack.

Let's go back to the terrorist plot to bomb the World Trade Centre in New York. For simplicity, I focus on this incident but there are many others equally as serious.

The FBI held clues to the devastation which lay ahead for the World Trade Centre because it had possession of videotapes, manuals and notebooks that had been seized from Mohammed Ahmed Ajaj, the Palestinian already serving time in a U.S. prison.

There were also phone calls that the prison had taped in which Ajaj had told another terrorist how to build the bomb.

But there was one problem - they were in Arabic and nobody who understood the language listened to them, or read them, until after the explosion which killed six people and wounded more than 1,000.

Intelligence officials were caught short and even today, roughly half of the U.S. diplomatic corp postings are filled by people lacking necessary foreign language skills.

Around the world thousands of scientific and technical papers also go untranslated, depriving analysts and politicians of vital information about foreign research in a significant range of business and scientific areas. Those are potentially lost opportunities.

Apart from the business opportunities the need for cultural and language proficiency has also grown mostly because in a globalised economy threats to trade and sovereignty are more diffuse and scattered throughout the world.

In the 1980's the terrorist thing didn't really arise but now with the possibility that someone can cross your border with a bomb in a small suitcase powerful enough to cause serious devastation, the whole picture has changed.

Moreover, the English language became the world's preferred business language and cuts in education budgets had caused schools to focus on just two or three languages such as French, German or Spanish.

The schools who taught other foreign languages such as Arabic, Chinese or Korean found dwindling student interest. In fact, globally, most enrolments in foreign language courses are for French, German or Spanish which has essentially remained unchanged since 1976.

In a globalised world the New Zealand political and business community are flying on a wing and a prayer in a risky environment. It's not that they are neglectful, it's just that they don't seem to understand that many of the cultural and linguistic risks are able to be avoided.

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