Diplomacy -- For English Native Speakers Only?

or: What Did He Say?

Bjoern Tore Sund

I make mistakes. Always have. Always will. I've heard there are others with that problem. In Diplomacy, making mistakes can be fatal. Both when you are submitting your orders, and when you are talking to the other players in the game. This article is about one particular type of the last kind of error.

Like most of this world's population, I do not have English as my native language. One consequence of that is that my command of English cannot compete with that minority who do have English as their native language. Clearly, that will put me at a disadvantage in circumstances where English is the language used. For instance, in almost all games of Diplomacy played via e-mail, or at larger conventions.

People whose native language is something other than English (from now on called foreigners, with no slight intended) can be divided into two groups. Those whose command of the language is obviously inferior, and those who speak the language well enough that others don't think their English is inferior. Which group has the bigger problem very much depends on the opponent and on their own awareness of their problem.

How does the average native English-speaker respond to someone who doesn't understand (or doesn't correctly misunderstand) anything said to them, and to top that, is unable to present even the most simple concept in a marginally coherent way? One, unfortunately very common, reaction is to assume that the person is stupid. People are accustomed to defining native English speakers who misspell every second word and who make simple grammatical errors as "stupid," and -- consciously or unconsciously -- these people assume that the same applies to foreigners. Usually it doesn't, but by the time they find that out, it is too late. The "stupid" foreigner will be wiped off the board, since nobody wants to have an "unpredictable idiot" as a neighbour for very long. Occasionally, the foreigner in question will find less prejudiced people nearby on the map, or other foreigners for that matter, but usually, he'll be dead. And, incidentally, out of the hobby, or playing no-press only, since his success no longer depends on his skill as a player, but on his skill at English. And the latter takes much longer to build up to a sufficient level than does skill at Diplomacy. Believe it or not.

However, given patience, any person will improve their skill at English to a level where it is no longer obviously inferior to the native speaker. You would think he would then have solved all his problems, right? Probably, yes, but he will have gained a whole new set of problems in the process. He no longer suffers purely xenophobic problems; instead he suffers from problems with thoughtlessness. There will be words or expressions he doesn't understand. Not too much of a problem, since he can always ask people to clarify, and usually they will. Only once have I been attacked in a game of Diplomacy for asking someone to clarify something I did not understand, and that person later on told me he thought I was pretending ignorance. What is a problem, and a much more common problem than not understanding, is misunderstanding. The tendency, especially among the many Americans who have hardly met anyone who isn't American, and who have definitely not talked to such a person, is to assume that anyone who anyone whose English is good will have a command of the language on par with their own. This is, if not impossible, then at least very very difficult to achieve. In general, I do not encounter American or British slang in my daily life, and so I won't understand it, or else will take it at face value. Literary allusions will be lost on me, since my literary upbringing will have been in my native language. They do not show the same TV shows here, and many Europeans will be used to seeing English movies in a dubbed version. When talking to a foreigner, expect him to take anything you say at face value. To drive the point home, and make sure you never forget it, take a look at what you've written to people over the years, and consider what happens if they take everything at face value. Maybe now you understood that otherwise unmotivated stab which someone performed on you, just after you made that combined allusion to "Hamlet," "Huck Finn," and "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.'

I'll close off with a word of warning. Don't take this text at face value. Much of what is written is based upon the culture I come from, that of northwestern Europe. It is very different from that of southern Europe, of eastern Europe, and, surprisingly to many, that of North America. And when you comment upon it, then remember that though I don't easily get offended, my upbringing and cultural background ensures that I may get offended at what you might consider just a funny little remark. And you don't need to talk to me in words of no more than two syllables, or sentences with a maximum of one comma. I can handle up to four, on both counts.

Bjoern Tore Sund
([email protected])

If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author, and clicking on the mail address above does not work for you, feel free to use the "Dear DP..." mail interface.