Words: Be careful how and when you use them

In his book You Bring the Bagels, I’ll Bring the Gospel, Barry Rubin says, “It’s important to understand that whereas a word may mean one thing to you, it will often convey a different meaning to someone else” (p. 93). In this, Rubin provides an important caution for those who work cross-culturally.

One morning while picking up people for our worship service, we picked up a man who, prior to the collapse, had fled the Soviet Union for the relative freedom offered in Israel. He was an unbeliever and this was his first visit to our congregation. Since we didn’t know him, we began the customary “get to know you” conversation, which was very enlightening and pleasant. However, things changed quickly and dramatically when the driver concluded that portion of our conversation with words he had probably said one thousand times before . . . back home in the United States.

“It’s good to have you.”

I happened to be looking over my shoulder into the backseat where our guest was sitting and the look that came across his face was startling. Upon hearing those words, his countenance immediately changed to one of fear. The implications of those words – “It’s good to have you.” – would be difficult to understand for those who had grown up in the 1940’s United States and had never been inside the borders of the old Soviet Union.

Our guest’s response is still fresh in my mind some twenty years later: “Not only do you not have me, you will never have me.” In that event, I learned an important lesson about the challenge of saying things cross-culturally and about apologizing when I inadvertently offend.

Have you ever had one of those “oops” moments? Share it in the comments.

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