A few years ago, I was checking my Ask Ali email and there was one from a Latin American woman that was more of a request than a question. "Dear Ali, my name is 'J' and I would like to meet you to discuss an important matter." I responded: "Mrs. J, of course, you are more than welcome to come and visit me at my office in Abu Dhabi." And I attached my office map.
A few days later, Mrs "J" came to visit. Just after we sat down and greeted each other, she announced very dramatically, "Ali, I would like to take you to Colombia!"
I still laugh every time I think about how she said it, because I was like, "Colombia!! Oh yeah?! Why? Who? Where? OK ... again, why? Wait, who are you?"
She said, "Oh sorry, yes, well, you see I'm a Colombian who is involved with the small Colombian community here in the capital and have contacts in our government back in Colombia, and I believe it's about time to have an embassy. I was searching for ways to create and raise awareness about both of our countries, and I believe you would be a great ambassador by sharing with your own people the essence of Colombian culture and also sharing your own culture with our people back in Colombia. I believe a video production of this journey with you as host would be amazing to produce. Wouldn't that be exciting?"
I thanked her a lot for considering me and told her that the idea was awesome and so we started chit-chatting some more.
She asked me, "So, Ali, what do you know about my country?"
I replied, "Oh, you know, that they like music. I think you guys are also almost like Arabs in that you all speak with passion and with your hands, and I think we have many similarities like being in a family-oriented culture."
She said: "Well, OK, but what else?"
Thinking about my friend from Argentina whose bags were stolen a couple of months ago, I just had to ask her: "Um, is it safe in Colombia?"
Even I had to ask the same question many foreigners ask before coming to the UAE. I don't blame them for asking about the safety of our country since the Arab world in general has been going through some tough times.
Mrs "J" replied with full of enthusiasm: "Oh Ali, yes, totally, it's a safe and a beautiful country."
After some silence, I jumped in, saying, "So it's totally fine. That's good."
Then she replied: "Well . ... in our country we have these gorillas that cause lots of challenges."
I was shocked: "You have what?"
Mrs "J" asked: "You know what gorillas are, right?
So I replied: "Yes, of course I do!"
Then she said, "Well, you know, these gorillas have been giving the government a hard time. Sometimes they even kidnap people!"
This was the moment I had to stop Mrs "J" and say: "Kidnap who? The gorillas? Kidnap people!?!"
And she answered in a very calm way, "Yes, Ali, sadly they do."
I exclaimed: "Oh God, this is just an amazing story. I swear, I have a friend working there and we could go and have this as part of our documentary show!"
She continued, "But you don't have to worry, Ali, all of these gorillas live in the mountains so there is nothing to worry about as we won't be going there."
Our conversation stopped there, but we promised to keep in touch to discuss the subject in more detail.
Just before she left, she brought up the gorillas again. "Trust me, Ali. It's the only problem we have, but we have it all under control. These gorillas can negotiate."
Me: "They even know how to negotiate?"
Mrs "J": "Yes!"
After Mrs "J" left my office, I really wanted to understand what just happened, so I called a friend of mine, Reg Athwal.
I asked him. "Reg, did you ever hear about these gorillas in Colombia who kidnap people?"
Reg asked me: "Ali, are you OK? What are you talking about?"
I said, "Reg, apparently there are some gorillas in Columbia who are kidnapping people!"
Reg just exploded laughing and said, "Oh gee, Ali, you mean 'guerrillas'not 'gorillas!'"
I was confused: "What do you mean? What's the difference?"
My friend explained: "It's a different word, Ali. The word guerrilla is associated with warriors, thieves and killers who live in the mountains. It's a Spanish word."
Both words still sounded the same to me.
I've learnt a big lesson from this story, which I now use in my courses to illustrate that there are many times we hear things from others and act as if we know what they are talking about, but in reality, we have no idea. At the same time, we often say something but actually mean something else. We have to pay attention to our cultural assumptions, which are not always true.