After finishing medical school in Louvain Belgium, I came to Schenectady, NY in the US to do my internship. My knowledge of English was what I knew from my high school language classes. this translates into “very little practical knowledge”. At first I struggled but caught on fast (I had to). What did not come so fast was my understanding of the use of idioms. In earlier blogs I related my embarrassment with “pain in the neck” and “prick”. Here is an other one which at the time gave me a red face but now after so many years makes me chuckle.

Anne and I lived in a small apartment close to the hospital and got by on a small, very small, salary (this was the late fifties). So did all the other interns. Therefore our entertainment consisted of pot-luck weekend evenings at each other’s apartments on a rotating basis. When it was our turn to host the get together we had told our friends to come around 8:00 pm. In Belgium this means arrival at the earliest around 8:15 or even later. Of course this is quite different in the punctual American culture. That evening the bell rang at 8:01 with the arrival of the first guests. I opened the door, sat them down, started the background music and offered them a drink, as other guests arrived. While they all were sipping their wine, whiskey, or soft drink, someone asked where Anne was. She was still getting ready, not expecting any one until sometime after 8 pm. I told them “Anne is taking a douche.” Now, a douche is actually the French word for shower and is also commonly used in the Dutch language, but of course in the English language that word has quite a different meaning. When I told everyone quite innocently, that Anne was taking a douche, people’s mouths fell open and I could see on their faces the disbelief and hidden thoughts …”what kind of party is this going to be?”
A similar confusion occurred toward the end of our stay in Schenectady, when the student nurses, many of whom had befriended Anne, who was now in her first pregnancy, told me that they were planning to give her a baby shower. They asked me not to say anything and keep it as a surprise. However, I felt compelled to warn Anne that she was going to receive a gift of a shower for the baby, rather than a bath. I felt that I needed to prepare her for this unusual gift, as I knew that babies in Belgium are washed in a small bath and not in a shower. Of course we had a good laugh when we realized our misunderstanding.

And so it goes!! If you want to read more and similar experiences you can read my book “Crosscultural Doctoring. On and Off the Beaten Path. You can download it for free from Smashwords at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/161522. Our just google: Crosscultural Doctoring.

I would love to hear about similar experiences from people, medical or non medical, around the world who have had difficulty with english idioms.

Authored By DR William LeMaire on Friday 29th July 2016