Musings on Coffee, Culture, & Language
I’m not sure if you’ve ever had a coffee in Europe, but it’s not the same as in the USA. And I don’t mean to be obvious, but I’m talking about the literal sentence, “I had a coffee today” which means something completely different. So when you say ‘coffee’ in Spain, for example, and you say it in the USA, you’re not actually talking about the same substance, same experience, possibly same time of day, or the quantity – the whole setting and experience could have a different backdrop. Even though you are saying the direct translation of what you would find in the dictionary, there is so much more to it: culture, ingredients, timing, quantity, etc.
We’ve just arrived in Sevilla, Spain for the EURA conference, where we meet to make partnerships in the global mobility and relocation space. Fluency Corp always chooses to arrive a few days early to adjust to the time change, especially this time, since we are traveling with my 9-month-old daughter internationally for the first time.
As I sit here in Tarta Home near the Melia Hotel Sevilla where the conference will be held, I cannot help but muse about the coffee in my hand. And how it represents why language is so critical, and why communication and understanding one another is the very heart of, well, life. Business, personal relationships, everyday conversations with neighbors – it touches every moment.
That’s why understanding what the proverbial ‘coffee’ means to others is why understanding other cultures and languages is so important. For example, I ordered a ‘coffee’ yesterday evening at 6 pm, and then I ordered food (which was hard to find at 6 pm in Spain!). The waiter was so confused about my backward order, so much so, that he offered to take my ‘coffee’ back and prepare it again for me after I had eaten. The idea of drinking a coffee before eating was so backward to him, that he put it on himself as a mistake he had made, even though I had ordered it – he had not misunderstood me.
I had created an awkward moment where he was apologizing, even though I had requested it. When we think about the timing of coffee, culture must be taken into account and how ‘things are done’. This extends to so many facets of doing international business.
Now let’s discuss preparation and ingredients. I, personally, am very sensitive to caffeine, and when people (in the USA) hear that I have 2 espressos a day, they always gape at the caffeine intake, even though regular American drip coffee and/or sodas typically have more caffeine.
This is another assumption that is actually incorrect. So when I use the specific term espresso, a thicker, dark liquid that will make me fly to the moon is imagined. People imagine I can stomach some serious caffeine, and think this must be intense, but the opposite is true.
I discovered my caffeine sensitivity at age 17 when I tried to make drip coffee in my mother’s coffee machine. Bad decision. I was off ‘coffee’ for the next 4 years. And not until I attempted coffee again at age 21 in Spain, did I find something that wouldn’t mess up my stomach. I could stomach espresso, but not drip coffee.
All of this is to say that words matter and the story behind them matters. So whether we work with people from the east coast of the USA or the west coast of the USA, or if we work with people from the west, like Japan, or from the east, like Europe, we have to be open to thinking that words don’t mean the exact same thing as our experiences tell us. So when you’re working with people from other places, keep an open mind when it comes to words. If something as simple as coffee is so different, imagine business practices and social norms.
I’m quite happy to be sitting here in Sevilla today, excited to start the EURA conference this week, with all our colleagues from across the globe. We are all ready to make partnerships, extend our hand across the oceans, and ready to reconsider what words mean as we have our conversations.