When a Spade Is Not a Spade

Some time this summer, when I was in the US for meetings and briefly stopped by a friend’s home, I helped in her garden. Gardening is something I miss here in Thailand, and I jumped at the opportunity to get my hands in the soil.

“Would you mind getting me a spade?” my friend asked. I happily complied, coming back with what I thought was a spade.

“That’s not a spade,” my friend smiled. “That’s a shovel. The spades are next to the shovels. Remember the Grant Wood painting, American Gothic?” she asked. “That‘s a spade.”

“I thought that’s a pitchfork,” I said, but didn’t want to argue the point.


That might be the problem with calling a spade a spade, I thought as I walked to the shed. What you call a spade, I call something entirely different.

Since English is my second language, plus since I’m from a country where we speak more of the Queen’s version of what we all call English, I simply assumed that either I was wrong, or that it was another cultural difference, like how we call an eraser a rubber. (I learned long ago to just call it an eraser, in case you are envisioning terribly embarrassing situations.)

Not that I’ve not had moments of extreme embarrassment when it comes to language bloopers, the best probably being the time I was an exchange student and kindly asked my host dad at dinner table to knock me up the next morning at 5. “What exactly do you want dad to do, Adele?” my host mom asked while my host brother and sisters were literally rolling on the floor laughing and my host dad was probably trying to do the Heimlich on himself from having inhaled his last bite of dinner. “Ummm, knock on the door to wake me up?” 18-year-old me replied, completely oblivious of what I had just asked my host dad to do.

Back to the spade, though. I was busy gardening, and I wasn’t going to pull up a dictionary app to look up the real meaning of spade. But tonight I finally did… I’ll find a good time to point out to my friend that it was not an American vs. English issue. She was wrong. I did have a spade. What she should’ve asked for was a pitchfork. (The language correction is done in good spirits, both ways, in case you wonder about the joy I seem to find in anticipating telling my monolingual friend that she doesn’t know her own language.)

My point is not that we make language bloopers. My point is that we can sometimes be completely convinced of a fact about our own culture or about our host culture, and we might be completely wrong. We might think we’re calling a spade a spade, and may even fight tooth and nail to defend what we believe is true, only to find out that we were wrong.

That’s why we need cultural informants whom we can turn to, or friends who can lovingly correct us. That’s why we need to give people permission to help us if we’re wrong, ’cause wrong we will be, more often than we’d care to admit.

We may have even held on to some theological convictions for all time that may be completely off, but we refuse to be open to the Holy Spirit helping us see something in a new light. And that’s why we need to ask God to lovingly help us see the Truth as he intended it, not as it’s been filtered through culture and theologians over time.

How about you? Have you had a wrong impression, whether of your host culture, an incorrect interpretation of something from your own culture, or a theological conviction that you’ve changed your mind on?


Adele Booysen works in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and the US,
and often has to eat humble pie as she adjusts from one culture and one language to another.


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