Lost in Translation

Recently, the unit doors in our apartment block were replaced. My elderly neighbour, let’s call him Jim, was outside speaking to the handyman. Just as I stepped out, he said to the handyman, “Here comes trouble. She causes problems around here”. My Korean neighbour was aghast at Jim’s comments and later told me that Jim was a rude man and I should have told him off.

I explained to her that Jim and I are good friends and he is a fantastic neighbour, always there to help me. In fact, the handyman commented on how lucky we are lucky to have good neighbours. I understand Jim and his humour. I can be as rude as I like with him. But we have a special friendship with neighbourly fondness. Lost in translation?

Australians do indeed have a unique sense of humour. We tend to say rude things to people we like.

A famous African American actor was visiting Sydney and went to a pub. The publican said, “Come on you bastard, I’ll shout you a drink” and slapped him across the shoulder. The actor was horrified but a quick lesson was given on Australian humour. Going on the words alone it’s easy to see why the perception might have been of racism and rudeness.

What can a migrant make of this Australian style of humour? When I first arrived in Australia, I couldn’t believe the swearing, language and slang, and how quickly people spoke. I spoke good English and yet I struggled to understand what was being said. It was a struggle in the beginning, but I grew to realise the humour and became accustomed to slang. I used to be called ‘Bob’ by the sales reps at one of my previous workplaces. I felt honoured that they had accepted me as one of their own.

There are so many instances where you will see or hear unfamiliar words. Like the time a woman (working in a male-orientated mining environment) was invited to ‘firing up the Barbie’ at 5:00 pm. The only Barbie she knew was a doll. Was it some kind of sexist ritual? She didn’t want to be part of it. Luckily, she asked a colleague and learned that a ‘Barbie’ is a barbeque. She had a great time and got to know her colleagues during this Australian ritual, getting some experience of Aussie mateship in the process.

One often hears the word ‘arvo’ – my staff used to talk about having ‘a meeting this arvo’. A migrant told me how she came across a sign outside a bakery saying ‘Arvo special’. She went in to enquire what sort of a bread it was. Well, it was an afternoon special for all breads in the shop offering slashed prices.

To avoid feeling excluded and confused, it is important to quickly grasp the slang words and understand Australian culture. It is unique, and if you don’t understand, ask your colleagues. Join in the fun – don’t make a judgement. And beware of slang from your own country, for example some American English can sound rude in Australia and vice-versa.

It is sometimes daunting to seek clarification of the meaning of unusual words you hear.  It may be pride or being afraid to ask in case you are ridiculed. But if you don’t ask, you’ll never know the meaning of these strange words or the affectionate behaviour using ‘rude words’ and so continue being confused and isolated. There’s always the Australian Slang dictionary … but it doesn’t tell all. When in doubt, ask someone.

Soraya Raju, Cultural Integration Expert, Migrate Success Jan 2017

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