It’s the small things

Just today I had a revelation when ordering coffee and a scone a local coffee shop (Caribou Coffee). For those of you who know me, you’ll probably say that’s where all of my revelations come from because I spend all of my time in coffee shops.  That’s true.  What’s more true is that I even use coffee shops and the language used in them as my favorite examples in my methods classes.

I like to talk about the importance of scripts.  These are common patterns of interactions embedded in specific contexts. The coffee shop is one of my favorites. The understanding of scripts helps people with limited L2 language skills to cope and communicate in L2 contexts.  Ordering at a coffee shop is relatively standard across shops and countries (thanks to Starbucks), particularly across Starbucks shops.  Even if I understand little Korean, I can still order at Starbucks in Korea.  The more differences between scripts, the greater the likelihood of confusion and breakdowns in communication (not to mention failure to accomplish your task).

At a coffee shop today (granted it wasn’t Starbucks), I came to the realization that my time away from the US makes me a less reliable guide to operating in this culture.  It was a small thing, but similar differences can reduce teachers’ effectiveness the longer they are abroad.  Now, we can have discussions of whether one needs up to date knowledge of one of the target language cultures to this degree, but I do think it is another hole in the cult of the native speaker.

By now, you may be asking what brought on this realization.  As I say in the title, it’s the small things.  Coffee shops here (at least the big ones) don’t really do mugs.  They might have them, but the default is a to go cup.  Even the ones that they had at this Caribou Coffee were only for smalls.  So, while they did say, “for here or to go,” staying true to the script, my response didn’t determine which type of cup I received.  Secondly, I got a scone.  The same thing I get when I go to Starbucks in Korea just about every time.  There, scones are served with jelly and butter.  When I asked for that here, I was met with a confused look and an employee digging through the refrig to see if they had either of those (they didn’t).

What does all of this mean?  First, it means that while I am in Korean, things change in the US.  Yes, I know, really deep, Dan.  However, these change without my notice and leave me less prepared to operate in my native culture.  That is a strange feeling.  Second, it means that my expectations of my native culture are influenced by businesses (and thus culture) that I associate with the US, but in reality operate outside of US cultural expectations.  This is a subconscious expectation on my part, but one that is very real. In this way, I develop Korean expectations for US language and culture that color my interactions with those people, businesses, and contexts in my native land.

I don’t have anywhere else to go with this. It was just something of my lived experience that I wanted to get out there.

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