"It Smells Cheese" and the Occasional Communication Breakdown

I've said it before and I'll say it again. In fact, I'll even write it down.

Once you date a non-native English speaker, you'll never go back.

The things my husband says are amusing, endearing and sometimes downright hilarious. I just can't get enough. Now, this is not to say that my husband isn't incredibly well-versed in the English language. Quite the contrary, actually. His vocabulary is one I could only dream of having in a second language (or third language in his case), and I often catch myself wondering how he learned some of the words he uses.

That is, until he turns around and exclaims,
"Wow, that shower totally washed out my brain!"
Cue my giggles.
"I mean, that shower completely brainwashed me!"
More giggles and an explanation of what brainwashing really is.

Or that time he asked,
"What are we going to make with this butterscotch?"
as he picked up the butternut squash I bought at the market.

Or every time he walks into the apartment while I'm cooking and exclaims:

He doesn't like cheese.
Yes, he's half French and half Dutch, has easy access to the world's best cheeses, and won't eat them.
Oh well, more for me.

Or, "It smells fajitas!" and I don't know whether to laugh at the omission of the word like or shudder because I'm reminded of that creepy scene in "Silence of the Lambs" when the psychopath threatens to use the hose on his victim unless "it rubs the lotion on its skin."

I could go on for days.

Unfortunately, not all of our little communication breakdowns are endearing or hilarious. There are bigger cultural differences expressed in language that have occasionally left either my husband or me feeling misunderstood or frustrated. The one that shows its ugly head most often is my tendency to express approval and his tendency to provide criticism.

I'm currently reading the book Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, in which one of the main characters moves from Nigeria to the U.S. for school. "When you visit the home of an American with some money, they will offer to show you their house," she is warned. "Please smile and follow the American and see the house and make sure you say you like everything." Sounds pretty accurate, doesn't it? I'm finding more and more that Americans have a special way of sugar-coating and approving of most things. We choose not to point out negative aspects, or worse, admit that we don't like something.

I will always remember the first time the husband came to Minnesota and ate dinner with my family. My mom made chicken and remarked that it was a little dry. "Yeah, it is a bit dry," he agreed. I was shocked. Surprised. Appalled, even. I mean, you don't tell someone that the meal they prepared was lacking, do you? Especially not the first time you're meeting them. Nope, not in the States. But apparently in many other places that is fair game.

Let's say someone presents you with something new. Chances are that this new thing (be it a recipe, a movie suggestion or an activity to try) falls on of the following spectrum, with most things falling in the middle (or being good).

In the States, we have the tendency to completely ignore the left side of the spectrum in our comments. (I'm talking about in-person comments towards people we care about. From what I've seen, our comments in online forums are the exact opposite.) Because I started with the food example earlier, I'm going to keep that going to illustrate what I mean. In America, if our friend or relative treats us to a meal that isn't very good or just ok, we'll probably say, "Mmmm, this is good," so we don't hurt their feelings. If the meal happens to be good or really good, chances are that we'll say something along the lines of, "This is great!" And if something is, indeed, great, we'll promptly exclaim, "Wow! This is awesome!"

My husband, on the other hand, is from a culture that doesn't feel the necessity to inflate reactions to such an extreme. To him, the bad is bad, the ok is ok, and the good is, well, the good isn't even necessarily just good. When I try a new recipe, I can expect to hear a comment along the lines of, "This is good, but could improved by this, that or the other thing." And awesome? Well, that word is reserved for nothing short of a miracle.

You can probably imagine our mutual frustration. My poor man makes a meal and is subsequently showered in nothing but compliments (sounds terrible, doesn't it?). What he really wants and even expects, however, is some honesty and advice about how to improve things for next time. So, I've been doing my best to work on this. I've been trying to be more critical and voice opinions other than just the positive. I mean, they do say that honesty is the best policy, and it definitely makes for more interesting conversation.

I also find myself wishing that I wasn't so used to receiving positive reactions when they're not necessarily deserved. If I had come from a culture where honesty was expressed more frequently, I wouldn't find myself needing to develop a thick skin in order to take constructive criticism, and I might take that extra step to improve things that I view as adequate.

At the same time, however, chances are pretty good that I am already aware that my cheesecake crust is a bit soggy or that the soup could use more salt ... so I wouldn't mind being spared the critique and just receiving a enthusiastic compliment instead.


  1. Very interesting blog, Brittany. I am enjoying your writing very much !
    Cathy Anderson

    1. Thank you for reading, Cathy! I'm glad you like it.