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Pet peeves and bugbears in cross-cultural communication

When you communicate with people from other cultures, be careful about expressions that your audience may not understand.

Expressions such as pet peeves!


I’m currently in Singapore helping writers communicate effectively with people from different language backgrounds. My participants need to use English to communicate with people who have limited English.

This post applies to written messages AND live presentations.


When I train people, I always encourage them to ASK me to explain and clarify if I use an expression they are not familiar with.

In a recent session, someone asked what I meant by “Pet Peeve”. While most people in the session were familiar with the expression, the participant who asked thought Pet Peeve had something to do with animals.

I can understand why!

A Pet Peeve is: some annoyance that an individual identifies as particularly annoying to himself or herself. A Pet Peeve is particular to a person, The expression, in my opinion, sounds more endearing than a Hate or Annoyance. It’s as if your particular annoyance is personal to you, more pronounced in you (than in others) and possibly your pet peeve is even “cute”.

In this case Pet is an adjective describing the noun. Peeve is the noun.

When people in your potential audience have limited English – they will usually think of a word’s meaning they are most familiar with – and often they think of nouns first – basic visible and “concrete” things – rather than intangible, abstract words.

I understand why when she heard the word pet – this participant thought of pet (a noun) – (as in dogs and cats and birds and fish).

I usually check my presentations for potentially confusing expressions – but the use of “pet peeves” was in response to a question and the expression slipped through.

Fortunately, I set-up the session encouraging people to speak up and ask if I used an expression they were not familiar with.

Fortunately, I was able to harness the Pet Peeve misundestanding as an example in the session of:
1. a confusing/unclear expression
2. the value of asking if you don’t understand

So I encourage you to:

1. check your messages for expressions people with limited English may not understand
2. encourage people to ask if any expressions are unclear

Even if communication is by e-mail or written reports – you should encourage a culture of asking if you are unclear.

In the session, the person who asked learned what a pet peeve was – and the rest of us learned a valuable example about how to communicate clearly in cross-cultural communication!


Also, while I am on the topic of the danger of expressions such as pet peeves, I recommend that you do not use the expression bugbear when you wish to describe an annoyance or irritation.

Though some people will understand that you mean an annoyance, an audience with limited English will probably think that a bugbear is some form of bear – or bug.

The word Bugbear was originally used to describe a legendary, mythical creature – often used in stories to scare children. It WAS a scary bear in its original use but the word took on the meaning of an annoyance.

I wonder if the bugbear has pet peeves or if pets have bugbears or if some people have a bugbear as a pet. 🙂


2 comments on “Pet peeves and bugbears in cross-cultural communication

  1. David Herbert
    May 17, 2015

    Having spent years dealing with people from nonEnglish speaking backgrounds I can say you are spot on! I’ve had instances where using a phrase like “held hostage by the Senate” has seen questioned raised about about whether people were being taken prisoner in parliament. Sadly this can also be taken by some English speakers as a sign of stupidity, which is also a pitfall that should be avoided.

  2. efangelist
    May 26, 2015

    Reblogged this on Choose the Right Words.

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This entry was posted on May 17, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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