In German the word gift means poison. In the Scandinavian languages it can be translated to either poison or marriage, depending on the context.
The word Tao in Japanese and Chinese has profound meaning. In America we use the word to name nightclubs.
Silence in Japanese business meetings is both expected and appreciated; it is considered poor form to fill the room with idle chatter. In America we talk nervously, watching the minutes tick past the start, hoping to make the meeting worth our time.
If a white man talks in a meeting in America and another white man interrupts him, they’re considered to be engaging in a healthy debate. They’re getting things done as we like to say here.
If a white woman interrupts another white woman, it’s considered rude. The woman who did the interrupting is violating the female code that says, it’s tough for us out here. My success is your success. Show that we respect each other so others will learn to do the same.
If a white woman interrupts a black woman, the white woman assumes she is treating her as an equal. The black woman, perhaps, feels differently. Her anger is not the same flavor as the white woman who gets interrupted by another white woman. They can commiserate, but the black woman feels in her bones their interruptions carry different weights: hers feels heavier. And she will hold the difference for a brief time in her heart and then file it away in the place where the other intangibles go. There is no point in saying to anyone, It’s not the same when you interrupt me. She will think it but she will not say it. In English the silence becomes poison. For the white woman it becomes a gift.
When a woman with more experience and heftier credentials is passed up for a promotion by a man, eyebrows are raised.
When a black woman with an Ivy League degree, a decade of experience, and a graduate degree en route reflexively narrows her eyes and feels a tightening in her chest when asked if she can handle a client call, her boss will privately ask, is everything ok and do you need to be switched from the account?
She most certainly can’t say, My great grandfather had to be referred to as ‘boy’ into his old age, and refer to white people as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ regardless of whether they deserved that respect (especially if they didn’t deserve that respect).
She’ll find her empathy and grasp it with white knuckles, convincing herself no one meant anything by it. Get out of your head she’ll tell herself.
We accept that words can have different meanings because it is in that slipperiness we find—and lose—ourselves.
Maura Cheeks is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Business Review and Lenny Letter, among other publications.