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A practitioner ponders

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The risk of misinterpreting language, both verbal and nonverbal, is a worldwide phenomenon in that a sign, which is widely recognised as conveying a specific meaning within a given society, can mean something quite different to someone from outside that culture. While we might interpret a single nod of the head to mean ‘yes’, in Bulgaria it is a local gesture that means ‘no’, and only if the nodding carries on does it become a ‘yes’. Similarly, there is more than a grain of truth in the old story about a summit between the United States and Japan, at which the then president of the United States thought that they had reached an agreement on a massive trade contract, because the Japanese premier kept nodding at what seemed like the appropriate junctures during negotiations. It was only later that the American delegation realised that the nodding was not an indication of the diplomat's agreement; it was simply the Japanese custom of demonstrating that one is courteously listening to the speaker.

But before we get too outraged at the idiosyncrasies of other cultures, maybe we need to look at our own hab-its, and in particular the words we use. Many phrases commonly employed by the British can trap the unwary, especially if listeners are from overseas. For example, when we say to someone, ‘With the greatest re-spect…’, the hearer may understand that we are listening to them and taking their views on board. Of course what we're actually saying is, ‘I think you're an idiot’. Similarly, if we say to a person, ‘that's very interesting’, they think they've impressed us; what we really mean is, ‘you're talking complete nonsense’. And when we meet an ac-quaintance on the street and say, ‘we must do dinner sometime’, the listener has to appreciate that this does not mean an invitation to a smart soiree will drop through their letterbox in the near future – it's just another way of saying ‘goodbye’.

Unfortunately, it strikes me that the what-we-say-and-what-we-actually-mean problem is not limited to dif-ferences between cultures; it exists within British society too, and nowhere is it more obvious than in veteri-nary surgeries. For instance, things can be lost in translation even among my staff. If someone says, ‘I might be a few minutes late getting in to work tomorrow – is that okay?’, they probably won't be in before lunchtime and, whether I acquiesce or not, my opinion will not make any difference whatsoever.

Meanwhile, between vets and pet owners the miscommunication can be reciprocal. So, after a major orthopae-dic operation, when the vet says, ‘please do not allow Bonzo to run free’, the owner hears ‘Bonzo can have as much exercise as he wants’. Likewise, if the nurse says, ‘give two tablets twice daily for five days’, you can be sure that the client will interpret this as, ‘give your cat one tablet daily but don't worry if you can't manage to dose him every day’. Equally, as a consultation draws to a close, a client may say, ‘Oh, and by the way, Fido has also been limp-ing/vomiting/sneezing recently’, but the vet must not discount this as a passing comment to be ignored. It is, despite the impression otherwise given, the principal problem that concerns the client, and the one that needs to be focused on.

Finally, the one that really sticks in the throat is the old chestnut encountered when dealing with the client who never has any means of payment when I treat his pet. Yet, he will assure me that, ‘the cheque will be in the post tomorrow’. It doesn't matter how much he nods his head in reassurance as he says this. We all know what that phrase really means.

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