What’s the recipe for communication?

Baking cookies.jpeg

My German grandmother baked intuitively (nach Gefühl). She would whip up magnificent desserts for large crowds by measuring dry ingredients with her hands, adjusting flour and sugar as needed until she “felt” the proportions were right. The fact that she cooked “by ear,” so to speak, explains why I don’t have any of her recipes.

I learned to bake from my Croatian grandmother who measured every ingredient with Swiss precision, and recorded her delicacies in a recipe book that became a family heirloom. I never had a problem following her recipes when I lived in Argentina or in Germany. But baking became more complicated when I moved to the States for reasons the reader may find embarrassing in their simplicity. Butter comes in sticks which are measured in tablespoons or ounces, not as a single brick weighing 250 grams. Dry ingredients are measured using cups and teaspoons instead of a scale; liquid ingredients, in fluid ounces, not liters. As I embarked on replicating the recipes that I knew so well, I bumped into yet another hurdle: oven temperatures. My recipes are in Celsius, not Fahrenheit. I also had to switch from a gas to an electric oven. This is how the relaxing ritual of baking became a science project. Recipes and ingredients had to be converted from the metric system with utmost precision, and I wouldn’t know until the goods came out of the oven whether my math skills were reliable.

If I burn my grandmother’s cookies, chances are no one will get hurt. But what about taking medication? That’s much more serious. One common mistake is drug dosages being miscalculated when the patient’s weight is converted from pounds to kilograms—an error that can result in the patient receiving a potentially fatal overdose (source: modernhealthcare.com). Unit conversion mishaps can also have costly consequences. In 1999, NASA announced that the Mars Climate orbiter, a satellite meant to collect data on Mars for two Earth years, had been lost. An investigation revealed the loss was due to miscommunication and confusion in mathematical units: While one team of engineers working on the spacecraft had used standard U.S. measurements, the other team had used the metric system. Estimated cost: $125 million (source: TheWeek.com).

Translation of medical records presents some special challenges. A common denominator in handwritten documents, transcriptions or diagnostic studies such as imaging reports, is the use of abbreviated words and phrases, symbols, and units of measure. Medical translators are familiar with record formats and the writing style in which medical information is conveyed.

Our cultural make-up consists of multiple layers of nuance, from language to cultural traits to family traditions. But when we think about cultural differences we rarely think about how people from different countries have to reorient themselves when they move to America. For new immigrants, the simplest things require adjustment. Take thermometers, for example. In Colombia 37.0 Celsius is considered normal temperature, but if the CVS thermometer shows 98.6 Fahrenheit, is it safe to send your child to school or do you have to rush to the emergency room?

Figuring out our way around family recipes is one thing. Getting the right recipe for communication across cultures is another.

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