Posted by: jt | January 26, 2008

cross-cultural charades

I play charades a lot at work. When you have group of 7 or 8 people who don’t speak your language and only 1 or 2 interpreters, frequently there just isn’t enough English to go around. So we play charades. And I can usually win.

I have a bit of a knack for inferring where a conversation is going – if I know the starting point of the dialogue. Much of the time, even when an interpreter is available, I can respond before they have a chance to explain. You speak Arabic! they joke. No, I’m just really good with the nonverbal communication. And I read minds.

Most of the time.

Surrounded by guys who speak precious little English at a halal restaurant, I tear into a fried wonton and glare at it, trying to ascertain its contents.

“Peek?” asks the perfectly delicious man sitting across from me. He’s young and super-cute and has the best English in the group.* As long as I speak deliberately, odds are he’ll understand me.

I smile and nod enthusiastically, trying to encourage him to use his English. “Yes, peek,” I reply, pantomiming the action without the wonton.

Confusion glazes over his charming face. Clearly, this is a no peeking zone. “No,” he shakes his head. “Poke?”

“Poke???” I wonder aloud and, to demonstrate, repeatedly stab his friend’s arm with my finger.

The two of them erupt into laughter and I’m facing one of my most frequent frustrations in these situations – I never get the joke. It’s always mildly amusing to watch everyone else convulse uncontrollably, but in cases like these there’s also the twinge of fear of what the hell did I just say to my clients? Minutes later they’re both still trying to control their giggles and one of them finally chokes out a word that sounds closer to “pork.”

Ah. Pork. Naturally. You’re Muslim, you don’t eat pork and you’re projecting your concerns over a mysterious wonton onto me. Perhaps this would have dawned on me sooner, had our interpreters not made it clear that this is a halal restaurant.

The two of them still snickering, it occurs to me that, from their perspective, I just said, “pork” and emphatically indicated that one of them actually was the forbidden meat. Finally clued in on the hilarity, I catch their giggles and all three of us dissolve into helpless laughter until we’re wiping tears from our eyes.

Hours later, the perfectly delicious one pokes me on the shoulder to get my attention. “See,” I say. “Poke.” His residual pork-based laughter is tainted by the frustration of having absolutely no idea what I’m actually saying. This time, an interpreter is close at hand and my friend runs ahead to figure things out. I watch the fruitless game of charades unfold and finally interrupt to explain, “Poke. He’s trying to say poke.”

The interpreter immediately supplies the correlating word, with an accompanying jab, and my friend’s eyes light up in recognition.

“Ah!” he exclaims. Grinning triumphantly, he taps me on the shoulder and says, “I want to poke you.”

Oh, honey.

If I didn’t want to keep my job, I’d be all over that.


*Update: This kid didn’t have the best English in the group.  He was just the most outgoing flirtatious outgoing.  The best English in the group was actually sitting next to me, quietly getting a read on everyone at the table.  Because he’s a manipulative little punk like that.  And I totally love him for it.



  1. “Ah!” he exclaims. Grinning triumphantly, he taps me on the shoulder and says, “I want to poke you.”

    Your job is so weird. In other contexts, that would be sexual harassment!

    Maybe you should tell him to feel free to SuperPoke you on Facebook. Or does that not translate?

  2. There is *much* in my job that, if taken out of context, would be sexual harassment. And probably a fair amount that, by American standards, *would* be. S’all about the cultural context. :-) And occasionally reminding yourself that, you only see them for few days. Then they go far, far away, where customs, laws and rights are different.

    But not with these guys. Any and all advances this time were…mostly in good fun. ;-)


    I’m too tired to think of something Amazingly Witty to say, just…. OH MY GOD.


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