Thinking Through Our National Expressions

One of the courses I’m teaching this term is an introduction to human resource management.  I was trying to explain to the class the necessity for creating descriptive discipline and grievance strategies to ensure that minor problems are dealt with before they snowballed.

Before they snowballed.

Things snowball.

My hometown, Orillia, during winter. We close off the main road for a few weeks. It becomes a SLIDE!!!! 🙂 True winter wonderland fun! (thanks for the photo)

Later in class, I was giving the ‘warning’ system as an example of disciplinary taken: that some firms employ a “3 strikes and you’re out” strategy, including the first strike of a verbal warning, second as written, and third as more severe levels of discipline.

Three strikes and you’re out.

Three strikes.

Expressions are used in language to illustrate.  They’re a descriptive way of showcasing an idea.  I instinctively said snowball and three strikes and you’re out as a way to make these concepts clearer to my students.

Instead I was met with a classroom of faces that clearly demonstrates that my attempts at clarity were not actually that helpful.  Obviously.  I’m teaching in the Middle East, not Canada.  I’m teaching students that don’t have much experience with watching snow literally ball itself as it rolls down a hill, or is rolled along the ground to make a snowman (or a snowball for a snowfight :))

I’m teaching students who are, on average, far more interested in watching soccer (which they call ‘football’) than understanding my little baseball analogy.

The funny thing is that after both situations I stood there for a moment, desperately searching in my mind for another way of describing these concepts.  These Canadianisms were so engrained in my brain that I was struggling to find another way to describe these occurrences.

Everyday I find myself changing my terminology to make more sense:  I stand in a queue, not a line, I get fuel not gas, and I never slur “fill ‘er up” when I approach said gas station, and I explain what I mean when I’m talking about a touque.

A young Wayne Gretzky illustrating where the origin of the expression “Keep your stick on the ice” (photocred:

And still, in searching for a way to be clearer to my students, expressions that would have made perfect sense to a Canadian audience, sprung into my head, without the slightest thought.

Part of me loved it.  I love Canada and its familiar, melodic accent.  I love that we have our own expressions for ordering coffee (at Timmy’s no less), for keeping our stick on the ice of life, for having a peach of a day.  I have been trying to re-popularize the use of chesterfield for at least the last five years.

But this incident made me realize just how close expressions are to cultural fabric.  What makes sense in one culture might be rendered quite meaningless in another.  And in lies the beauty – not only can we learn what is important in other cultures, but we can reflect on what expressions show about our own.

What about you?  What are common expressions in your culture and what does that say about your country/region?