Language Misunderstandings

Folklorist Norine Dresser is the author of "Multicultural Manners" (Wiley, 1996). E-mail:

Mr. Raynaud, a recent immigrant from France, finds employment as a high school literature teacher in the U.S. One day, a female student bursts into tears in the middle of class. Raynaud walks over to her to investigate the cause of her unhappiness. After she explains, he attempts to comfort her by saying, “I understand how you feel because I have been in your pants.” Once his class gains control over their laughter, they teach him about the preferred use of the word “shoes” rather than “pants” in his expression of sympathy.

English speakers from different countries experience gaffes, too. When the new professor from Ireland began her college teaching here, her mostly male students appreciated her commitment and seriousness. Consequently, they were stunned by her instructions for taking their first machine-scored test. “Bring a No. 2 pencil, and don’t forget your rubbers.”

After a brief shocked silence, the students burst into laughter. When Konley learned that in the U.S. rubbers meant condoms, she turned red, then clarified that in Ireland, rubbers means erasers.

American-born Rose was insulted when she met Sam, a Scot, who told her she was homely. Rose didn’t realize that Sam was praising her warm personality. Apparently, Sam smoothed over the misunderstanding because they just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.