When the Customer Experience Gets Lost in Translation

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To treat myself in Seoul, I love going to different coffee shops and sitting there for hours on end. I love getting lost in my writing or drawing among crowds of people studying or catching up with friends old and new. I usually try to save my trips to cafes for the weekends as a way of saving money on coffee during the week.

Because of my infatuation with Korean coffee shops, I managed to perfect my Korean coffee-ordering skills and can now waltz into any cafe with ease. My heart no longer beats uncontrollably when it’s almost my turn to order and I’m not scared of making mistakes. These ordering interactions are also a way to improve my language skills should our coffee-ordering dialogue go off-kilter.

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‘So what does this have to do with customer experiences and translations?’ What a great question! Let’s discuss…

Occasionally, my Korean cafe trance is interrupted when a sales assistant at the other end of my aforementioned coffee-ordering dialogue responds to me… in English. Meaning: I’ve said ‘Korean Korean Korean’, only to then receive a response in English. ‘So’, I hear you ask, ‘what is so bad about this and why is it so concerning to you that you’ve written an entire dissertation (this blog post) about it?’

Living in a foreign country and sticking out like a sore Australian thumb has many challenges. I know that having people speak to me in English is a gesture of goodwill. I personally think that it is amazing that so many Korean people can speak English and are very willing to make foreigners feel at ease. However, pouring my heart out to someone by ordering a coffee in my very best Korean feels a little bit embarrassing when I am met with a response in English. This fuels the daily anxiety I feel as someone who has been living in Korea for over a year and has a rather long, never-ending way to go with their Korean language skills.

‘Okay, but where does the customer experience part come in? So what if you feel inadequate and angsty, we all do?’

As someone who slaved her university days as a customer service worker in both hospitality and retail, I am all too familiar with the language of good service. How to greet people, how to make people feel like they’re the most important customer in the world etc. It wasn’t a skill I was very good at, to begin with, but over time I improved my communication skills and my confidence in interacting with customers from all walks of life.

After several years of working jobs that I hated, I, in turn, became highly sensitive to customer service everywhere I went. Having experienced it myself, I became more aware of the struggles customer service workers face and gained a newfound respect for dish hands, Uber drivers, bartenders and everyone else in between. I started to show increasing respect to the workers who were kind and welcoming to me which made me want to be a regular customer.

With a bad experience, on the other hand, I would usually try and avoid ever going there again. That may sound petty, but living in Melbourne, there were plenty of places for me to buy a coffee, sandwich or a pair of shoes. Once you’ve worked the Christmas shifts in a retail shopping centre, you learn how to be polite to people with literally zero effort. It becomes a role that you must play to survive. It’s not that hard to be polite to someone who just wants a pair of jeans that won’t sag around her butt.

So, again… what does language have to do with your customer experience? Well, it’s not so much the use of English that I have a problem with, it’s the way the English is used that can dampen the experience.

Let’s say I ask for a hot latte in Korean (you always have to specify if you want a hot or cold drink in Korea which is a whole other blog post right there, the ‘assume hot unless otherwise stated’ rule doesn’t apply here). I’m standing there in front of the cash register, thinking my Korean skills are award-winning and I await a response from the sales assistant. If they then reply with a ‘hot?’, or a ‘take out?’, in English, this is where my fury ignites. Not only have I just spoken to them in Korean, and they have understood me, they feel it necessary to confirm my order in a different language. A language that they assume I speak because of the way I look.

I would be grateful for this as a traveller, but as somebody who now calls Korea their home, it feels disheartening. Furthermore, the English being used is usually formed as one or two-worded sentences. This can really negatively impact the customer experience, especially if you are like me and you are eagerly trying to improve your language skills. Let’s compare the English dialogue of a one to two worded sentence with a sentence used by customer service workers in a native English speaking country:

‘Hot?’ vs ‘Would you like that hot or cold?’

‘Take out?’ vs ‘Did you want that for here or to go?’

‘Membership?’ vs ‘Are you a member with us? Would you like to sign up?’

‘For here?’ vs ‘Whereabouts are you sitting? Did you want to have that here?’

‘Bag?’ vs ‘Do you need a bag? Will you be needing a bag?’

Korean is a complex language with many forms of honorifics, it is relatively easy to offend someone by accidentally talking down to them in casual form. As a language learner, I am taught to speak Korean politely in any given context. It’s the best way to avoid offending somebody because ‘when in doubt, be polite’.

English, on the other hand, does not have these same language rules. The nuances of being polite in English is something that can’t be taught easily with formulas or sentence patterns. When students learn English, they don’t learn levels of politeness the way learners of honorific languages such as Korean and Japanese do. Your teacher might correct you by simply saying ‘this way might sound a bit more polite’ or ‘that is considered rude in English’.

For example, when I was working as an English here in South Korea, I corrected my students any time they used words like ‘wanna’ and ‘gonna’. I told them they are not real words and they are only used by lazy people (I know, I’m literally the worst person but I wanted my students to annunciate, sue me). With younger students who simply yelled ‘teacher, bathroom’, I never let them go to the bathroom until the practiced saying ‘Teacher, may I go to the bathroom’. If you don’t try and break a student’s habit then and there, their cute language faux pas might stick around for the long run.

Considering this, imagine a Korean sales assistant simply saying ‘Hot?’ in Korean to a Korean customer. That customer would most likely be offended. This brash language translates as rude in English. If somebody simply said ‘hot?’ to me at a Melbourne cafe, I would probably respond with an affirmative grunt rather than give them a spoken response. Using single word responses is quite abrupt in any language. The language of customer service is very important in making the customer feel welcomed and valued for spending their $5 on a cup of hot milk.

This unnecessarily long blog post was inspired by an observation a friend and I made here in Seoul at a cafe. When she ordered her drink, they responded to her in English with one or two-word responses. When I ordered, they responded to me in Korean, which my friend overheard. She made the comment ‘wow, when they speak to you in Korean, it sounds so much more polite than when they speak to you in English’. She’s right, Korean customer service workers employ a very polite form of language because they must show respect to everybody. They wouldn’t even speak that politely to their own parents. My friend and I both shared very different experiences because of this one small language difference.

While I do appreciate people trying to speak to me in English, I always make a somewhat arrogant effort to respond in Korean. I am trying to integrate myself into this culture by speaking as much Korean as I can. I could simply respond to everyone in English because as a native speaker, it is the easier option. However, I would never improve my skills that way. I don’t want to become dependent on English and look back and wonder why I haven’t improved my language skills. I guess making such a conscious choice is the reason I am so passionate about this topic!

Furthermore, just because I am foreign, there really is no way of knowing if I speak English. South Korea attracts visitors and ex-pats from all over the world. Russia, France, Spain, Uzbekistan and America – nobody is immune to Korea fever. Are these scenarios I am describing any different from me trying to speak Chinese to an Asian-looking person in Melbourne as a cafe worker? If I did that in Melbourne, the customer would feel terrible, especially if it turned out that their mother tongue was Korean, Japanese or something not remotely similar to Chinese.

So I beg of you, if somebody, in any language or country, is trying their best to communicate with you in your native tongue, take it as an opportunity to help them, not belittle them. I have made so many mistakes from using only Korean, but those mistakes always help me grow and give me a funny story to tell my husband when I get home. Interacting in one or two words of English with somebody who is trying to learn Korean is not going to improve your English, nor will it improve their Korean. If you do want to speak English to your foreign customers, do the extra homework and improve your sentence structures. It doesn’t hurt to be too polite.

The places I do feel very grateful for English are places like immigration, hospitals, and sometimes banks. However, I recently successfully acquired a new credit card without using any English. Even if there is an opportunity to use English, I will always do my best to use Korean. I may stumble through conversations and get lost listening to native Korean, but I am always better off having tried. Having been put in that difficult position in the first place is a great way to learn, much like any other learning opportunity in life.

What do you think about this? Do you feel a little dead inside when somebody responds to your Korean in English? Or is it just me? I understand that this is quite a negative post, but I do acknowledge that many Koreans in customer service are able to communicate in English very politely. The fact that so many Koreans want to learn English and improve their skills is also somewhat miraculous. Australians should really follow suit. This was merely my observation as someone trying to call a different country their home and often feeling more and more like an alien than a local.

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Lost in Fruit

Yesterday, as a gust of clean Seoul air swam its way through the dusty cocktail Saturday left behind, I meandered through the back streets of my neighbourhood to go to the local fruit and veg market. To set the scene, let me just say that the back streets near my house would be the perfect place to film an (on-foot) small scale burglary chase or, I don’t know, shoot a catalogue for an elderly women’s fashion movement. It just has that kind of edgy but practical kind of feel to it. Anyway. So, off I trot to the market feeling all empowered and not at all anxious about being the only western person within a 200km radius. I wander up to the bright fruit stall opposite the equally bright fruit stall I usually go to because I thought it would be nice to shake things up a bit. I point to what looks like a basket of juicy mandarins and say (in my best Korean) ‘please give me these mandarins’. The vendor did not correct my attempt to order what was in fact not a basket of mandarins. As she piled the unfamiliar looking mandarins into a black plastic bag, I knew that I had made a terrible mistake. Much to my not at all surprise, I did not protest the above average ($10) price tag for so few “mandarins” (for that matter, I would never protest anything in a second language unless encouraged by alcohol). Instead, I held my head high, faking the aura a person who just purchased exactly what they wanted might possess. I strolled on home, back through the narrow grandma/gangster back streets, past the old men smoking in their pyjama pants outside their homes and into the safety of my home that does not speak to me in Korean. The way I feel when attempting to do anything in a foreign language by myself is crippling and liberating, making any situation where speaking is required quite awkward. My brain wants to shout out random phrases I’ve memorised like ‘happy new year’ or ‘thank you for the food’, but my body just wants to pretend I’m travelling on business and therefore far too important to learn the local language. The result of these conflicting feelings is me just kind of making weird grunting noises with robot arms while I somehow simultaneously nod and shake my head when given any opportunity to speak another language. It’s very sexy.

After one month of living in Seoul, I’m hoping that from here it will get easier. I hope to come home with the right fruit next weekend feeling accomplished and slightly less like an alien. To be fair to myself, the fruits did all look the same, hence this illustration that I decided to draw and share with you all. I hope you enjoyed this anecdote. If you didn’t enjoy it, that’s okay too. It wasn’t meant to change your life or challenge your understanding of fruit and the earth. Have a great day and don’t forget to ‘eat your fruits and juice your vegetables’ according to that annoying guy in the movie ‘Her’. Does anybody know what I’m talking about? I guess I lost you long before that reference and needn’t worry. Annyeong!

Illustration and words by Johanna Quinn. All rights reserved. Image must not be distributed or used without artist’s consent. 2019.

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