Walking into a new country where people speak very little English reminds me of the dangers of over communication.

Going into a restaurant and saying: "Could I get the turkish coffee and an omelette with a.... croissant, oh, and a glass of water, no ice and, I know this is a bit weird, but I like cinnamon in my turkish coffee, could you add a bit of cinnamon to it ? Oh, actually, could you scratch the omelette and do poached eggs instead"

Is a recipe for failure, at best the waiter looks at you confused and you can be ashamed of your poor communication skills and start over.

At worst you're getting an omelette, with a cinnamon bun instead of a croissant, two cups of turkish coffee, with some additional poached eggs and a room-temperature bottle of water.

Maybe a far fetched example, but the point is: The more instructions you give, the flourishes you put into your request, the higher the likelihood that the core of the requests gets lost.

If you can point at the items on the menu and hold a number of fingers in the air to indicate the quantity, that's an ideal way to order.

But it's curios that this sort of over communication never happens in, say, Japan. In places where people know very little to no English and where they don't mind telling you that what you just said made no sense (or at least they get very visibly embarrassed, more so than their standard over-the-top anxiety, and the fact that it made no sense is instantly obvious to anyone).

It happens in the countries where people kinda-know English and where they consider it rude to admit to not understanding you.

Japanese and Taiwanese clerks, random pedestrians I ask for directions and servers, know about as much English as I know Japanese or Chinese. But we can communicate just fine via grunts, smiles, pointing, shaking of heads and taking out a phone to google translate if the interactions is baring close to the 30s mark with no resolution in sight.

The same archtypes in India and Lebanon speak close to cursive English though, give them 6-12 months in the UK or US plus a panache for learning and they'd be a native speaker (I guess it could be argued that many people in India speak 100% perfect English, but their own dialect, but for the intents and purposes of this post I'm referring to English as UK/US city English).

Yet it's always in the second kind of country where I find my over communicative style fails me. Partially because I'm more inclined to use it, partially because people are less inclined to admit I'm not making any sense.

I'm pretty sure it's this phenomenon is a very good metaphor or instantiation of a principle that applies in many other situations, especially in expert communication. Or rather, in how expert-layman vs expert-expert vs expert-{almost expert} communication works.

George's Shortform

by George 25th Oct 201965 comments