Are you clearing your throat or saying hello?


Are you kidding me? Where’s the camera?

I negotiate often.  Biggest part of my job.   I have been in so many tug-of-wars I have lost count.  Most of my opponents in these struggles are foreign nationals.  From Australians to Indians to Arabs to Africans to Europeans to Americans.  It literally takes all sorts.

But one thing I have never done was enter into a negotiation with a person who has NO comprehension of the English language.  Ok, that’s is a slight exaggeration.  He knows “Thank you” and “Hello”.  Three words. That. Is .It.

Somewhere in the Southern parts of Egypt there was business man who sat in his office and decided that it would be a good idea to travel on his own to the Southern tip of the dark continent and negotiate a business deal with a company founded over the web, with no comprehension of the business dialect of that country.  (It’s not like South Africa is overrun with Arabs, mind you.  That’s Sudan.)  Is it just me, or does this seem a bit ridiculous?  My initial thought, after our first attempt at a phone call, was that this guy might own an elevator, but it definitely doesn’t reach the penthouse suite.

I reluctantly scheduled the meeting, assuming that he will bring some kind of translator along.  Well kids.  Never assume anything.  The person I had the phone call with ends up being the son, who is NOT joining his father on the trip.  (I really hope I never do anything to my son that would screw him up so much, that he would want to sent me on a trip to Africa on my own.)  This gentleman will be arriving from Egypt without an entourage or any prior knowledge of the workings of my country.

Please note it’s not like South Africa is a shit hole, but one would expect, based on the exaggerated news headlines, that foreigners visiting our country for the first time would avail themselves with a few basics. Like English.  Nope, not this dude, he’s like an Arab version of Crocodile Dundee.

He arrives @ OR Tambo and immediately needs directions to the hotel he has to stay in.  As the hotel is part of the terminal building, the easy option would be to say, “Just follow the signs”, but then you need to be able to read from left to right. How he got there, checked in, had dinner and checked out again is a miracle in itself.  Resilience remains  an understated human quality.

I organised a driver and when they arrived the next day, he claims to have formulated some kind of understanding with the non-English speaking Egyptian.  Surprised, I wanted to know how he managed this.

“Well, said the driver. “I just spoke very slowly.”

This is a common mistake.  But remains hilarious.  All people are convinced that when you interact with someone who doesn’t speak your language you just need to speak slower to facilitate understanding.  The problem is that the other person doesn’t have a problem with the speed of your articulation, but with the specific sounds you bring forth from your mouth.

“How did you know he understood what you said?” I asked intrigued and amused.

“He smiled.”

I cracked up on the inside, but my father taught me that it is inconsiderate and rude to laugh at someone in their face, and one should withhold hysterics until they leave.  I almost didn’t make it.  Long story short, I got hold of a translator, and the negotiation commenced early Tuesday morning.

First of all, I just need to say to all those reading this and who haven’t heard an Arab speak, it’s sounds simply disgusting.  I am not saying that I sound like an angel when I converse in my mother tongue, but Arabic sounds like the user is clearing his throat from a severe cold ALL THE TIME.  I constantly wanted to give this guy a spit bowl to get rid of the gallons of phlegm he seemed to have stuck in his throat.

It was repulsivein a way I am unable to describe accurately.

To negotiate using a translator is not as entertaining as you might think.  A normal half an hour to-and-fro on pricing , quality, payment terms and delivery becomes a four hour communication marathon hell.  You have to break down your sales pitch into bite-sized chunks and relay this piece by piece to the translator.  He then proceeds with an audible echo and you sit and focus on the face of the other, because we all know understanding creates the same expression on any face.  Then he starts gurgling spit and you wait in anticipation for the interpreter to make some sense of sounds that really should not be made by any human, unless they are severely or terminally ill.

It is like a really bad Skype call with a 4 minute delay.

In the end we shook hands and all three of us was visibly exhausted.  We looked like chickens after a rainstorm.  But he accepted my offer, which technically made me look like a rooster after a rainstorm.  He’s heading back now with the driver who is still addressing him in very slow English.  (I don’t have the heart to tell the driver that he sounds like a Circus Ring leader on Meth, but at least the translator is in the car this time).

It’s been a very interesting event in my life, and I want to blame those stupid people who planned and discussed building the Tower of Babel in Biblical times.  What happened to covert operations?  Maybe if they were a little more discreet, then God might have missed their genius plan and the Tower would have been finished.  And all people could  converse in one language.

Wait a minute, that language would have been Hebrew and then everyone would have been gurgling phlegm…

On second thought: I love diversity.


3 thoughts on “Are you clearing your throat or saying hello?

  1. I went on a group business training trip to Portugal once. The pimary language was Portugese. The second language was French. The only other language I speak is German. An older Portugese man and I hit it off and could converse very well indeed with about three words of the others’ language. I guess we spoke the same sign language.

    An example was the morning I came down and proudly said to him, in Portugese, “Yes, No, Pineapple.” He put his arm round my shoulders and we walked off, laughing.

    Translation: “Hey, guess what, I’ve learned some Portugese – Yes, No and Pineapple!” “Well, what more do you need? Let’s run off together!”

    We discussed what we did in the previous evening, and he told me how the factory worked.


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