Slips of the tongue happen for most of us way more frequently than we would like. When we find ourselves in a new place (e.g., Kenya) and with a different language base (e.g., Kiswahili and UK-influenced English), the slips just seem to multiply exponentially. It’s a good idea to think about the kind of response to make following realization of a verbal or behavioral gaff.
Joan spent a lot of time with the kids at the Methodist Children’s Home while we were in Kenya. The 25 boys and girls ranged in age from about five to middle teen. She took books to read, paper and art supplies, and food treats on her evening visits. She and the kids developed strong relationships and it didn’t take long for Joan to discover that they had very limited wardrobes: two school uniforms and perhaps one or two other outfits—some of which were in sad shape.
It was natural for Joan to begin talking about getting “some new pants.” Questions about, “Could you use some new pants?” or “What size pants do you wear?” brought strange looks and not exactly the response Joan would expect. That is, until she found out that “pants” mean under wear. “Trousers” are what you wear in public.
Joan had earlier described herself as eager to learn from the kids and she had developed good rapport, so it was fairly easy to accept the correction about under- and outer-wear. It was harder to keep the difference in mind as she started purchasing 25 pairs of “trousers.” She and the kids had a good laugh about it.
I didn’t discover my oops as quickly. Before we left Kenya, the Dean had a small group for dinner to acknowledge our time at the university. It was a delightful evening of good conversation about Kenya, education, our experience, and other topics. It was the kind of dinner conversation (and food) that makes for a good time.
At one point, the Chair of the Faculty explained that every Kenyan name has a meaning. Further, I had been in Kenya long enough to have a Kenyan name. He wondered out loud what name would be good for me and the decision was that Muthomi would fit. Muthomi means “scholar” or “reader.” I was pleased with the name, asked how to spell it, and had it pronounced for me a couple of times.
The next day, I walked into the room for the final exam of my class to see 42 students—both the full time students and the distance learning students. In the moments before beginning the exam, I was taking care of preliminaries and said, “I was given a Kenyan name last night. You can now call me Professor Muthoni.” Forty-two people burst out in laughter. I didn’t see that much humor in the name and just smiled.
Later that day, on the way to the airport in Nairobi, our driver explained that the “m” changed to an “n” in the word changed the meaning from masculine to feminine. Oops! The problem? I had no way to tell the students that I knew what I had done.
Of course, I still get smiles from the little “slip” one of my students made when she was discussing some of Freud’s concepts. Instead of using the word “Electra” to describe a complex, she used the word “erection” to modify complex. Since it was a written paper assignment, I was the only one to see it; thus, no great embarrassment. It has given me some smile moments.
I made at least one behavioral blunder in Kenya. The university inherited (and kept) a pretty formal structure from the early UK influences. For example, communication up the administrative line needs to follow protocol. Faculty members need to go through permission channels to communicate with any administrator at a higher level. I messed that up.
When I was first on campus, I was introduced by the chair to every administrator on campus. In addition, I had encountered many administrators at one of the “twice-a-week” chapel services. There were friendly greetings exchanged and a couple of “we-need-to-chat” comments made. It seemed natural for me to send a memo of thanks to a top administrator as my time on campus was nearing an end. Along with my thanks, and a comment that I hoped we would have time to talk before I returned to America, I included a series of five or six “observations and recommendations” coming from my four months in Kenya. Through some indirect communication with others, I was informed that I had ignored standard protocol, to which I said, “Blame it on a cultural gaff.” (Actually, I knew I had violated protocol, but that’s OK—I’m pleased that I was able to make my comments.)
It seems to me that if the only errors or blunders we had to contend with in life were the occasional verbal or behavioral slips, it would really be a pretty good world.
We’ve been back in Oregon for one week. We have not completely adjusted. We both miss the place and the people. It was a powerful experience and we both learned a huge amount.
Brooke Collison is professor emeritus of counselor education and a former president of the American Counseling Association. He will be a visiting professor at Kenya Methodist University in Meru, Kenya during the September trimester. Joan Collison will be a volunteer with children in a social service agency during their four-month stay in Kenya.