It was several days into a literacy workshop, and I was deep in discussions with my team. We were working on some literacy materials for a minority group. My team was made up of expats and locals, which meant our communication was in the national language.

“We need to consider the grannies,” one teammate said, using the colloquial way to (respectfully) refer to older women. From past experience, we knew that it would be the older women of the villages who would be the first to try out new literacy materials – with younger people and the older men off working at factories or in the fields, they were often the only ones left at home.

“That’s right,” another teammate agreed, “We should make sure we use a big enough font. Many of the grannies will have a hard time reading the words otherwise.”

As the discussion continued, I started to offer some help on the topic. But I only got as far as, “Well, the old women…” at which point the entire table burst into laughter.

It’s one of those moments that every expat has sooner or later. You sit there, knowing you’ve said something wrong, hoping you didn’t just accidentally drop that language’s F-bomb. I’ve found it’s best to not take yourself too seriously, and just roll with the faux pas. I grinned and tried to ask what I had said that was bad (and how bad it was!), but it took a while for my teammates to stop laughing hard enough to answer me.

“The ‘OLD WOMEN’! HA HA HA HA!” my teammate was wiping his tears away as he regained his breath. “It’s just – hahahaha – it’s just…you can’t call them that!”

Eventually, I got out of him that I had basically called our dear village grannies, “the old hags.” That was funny enough, but even funnier that I used it in the middle of a serious, academic discussion on literacy.

It’s now a few years later, but that same teammate will still start chuckling when he sees me. “The ‘old women’! Ha! That was so great.”

Well, I guess it’s good to be remembered for something.


Have you ever unintentionally addressed someone in the wrong way? Have you already learned the appropriate way to address different age groups in your country? Are you still remembered for a particular language/cultural blooper? Share in the comments! 


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