Phrase of the day: What’s the damage?

Last month, I had to take my car in to the garage to get the annual MOT done. An MOT is basically a check you have to have done every year to ensure your car is still roadworthy – it’s safe enough to be on the roads. I always get mine done in the same place – a little local garage near where I live. I know the mechanics there and I know the owner and I trust them to do a good job and not try and rip me off by charging me for things I don’t really need. When I went to pick up my car, I chatted a bit, had a look at what they’d done and then went into the office to pay. I asked, as I usually do in these kinds of circumstances “So can I settle up? What’s the damage?

It’s the same question I might ask a tailor, a barman, a builder or a friend who’s bought something I asked them to get me. I’ve always thought of it as a friendly, jokey kind of question; a way of asking how much you owe while acknowledging the damage done to your bank balance. However, I was chatting to a Japanese friend yesterday and suddenly realised that not everybody sees it in the same way. The first time he heard the question, his initial reaction was blank incomprehension, which was followed shortly afterwards by shock. He saw the question as manipulative and found it annoying. “From a Japanese point of view,” he told me, “I’m thinking that I didn’t force anyone to spend their money. They chose to do it themselves! Why are they trying to make me feel guilty? Why can’t they just ask me simply how much something is?”

It just goes to show how simple bits of everyday language can be interpreted so differently – and how deeply our own cultural roots affect the way we see things. A fixed phrase that I’ve always taken for granted – or seen as warm and friendly and funny – can sound very different to our listeners.

At Lexical Lab, when we’re teaching, we try to be aware of cultural differences – as well as common ground. We encourage discussion of how language sounds to you – and exploration of possible reasons for any differences. It’s only by talking that any of us ever learn how to be more sensitive about the way our words may impact those around us.

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Now think of your answers to these questions.

  • How does the question What’s the damage? sound to you? Does it sound more friendly / jokey or more manipulative?
  • Do you have a similar question in your own first language?
  • Do you have a similar system to the annual MOT where you live? How does it work?
  • Have you heard any stories about people getting ripped off by mechanics / other kinds of tradespeople? What happened?
  • Do you have any tradespeople that you trust completely and that you regularly use?
  • Have you ever been in any situations where cultural differences affected communication? What happened?
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