I am looking for a word or phrase to describe a misinterpretation of tone due to language or cultural differences.

For example, this is an answer from Arqade, the gaming StackExchange site

Sir it would appear that you have encountered something called a "bug",which is no wonder since DayZ is early access game.

This one is known bug and it is even reported on the DayZ feedback site so it will be fixed sooner or later...It doesn't seem to have a high priority for now however.

For now reconnecting should fix this problem,sadly it isn't viable long term solution.

Here is the link to the ticket if you want to track the progress.

The answer is perfect, explaining not only what is happening, but why it is happening, how to fix it and links to further reading. However explaining what a 'bug' is in a game seems condescending in any type of gaming community. After further research the poster is from a Middle Eastern country and it seems that he was trying to be verbose in his answer (which should be encouraged) instead of condescending.

4 Answers 4


One general-purpose expression comes to mind: 'faux pas'. Or its English-language equivaltent, 'false step'.

A quote from Stevenson's "Virginibus Puerisque":

An orator makes a false step; he employs some trivial, some absurd, some vulgar phrase; in the turn of a sentence he insults, by a side wind, those whom he is labouring to charm; in speaking to one sentiment he unconsciously ruffles another in parenthesis; and you are not surprised, for you know his task to be delicate and filled with perils.

Digging a bit from the 'faux pas' page at Wikipedia, I found the expression "cross-cultural blunder". That may fit the purpose. Or, per Adam Brown's suggestion in a comment below, 'cultural faux pas'.

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    'Cross-cultural blunder' absolutely seems to be the closest. It not only communicates the unintentional nature, but also that cultural differences are the cause. Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 22:29
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    I think I'd prefer 'cultural faux pas', which a quick Google search suggests is more widely used.
    – Adam Brown
    Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 22:53

Perhaps we could call this a failure to adopt an appropriate register.

Your writer might use a register that they believe to be learned or authoritative, but which reads to some as condescending. Register can be very difficult to get right when participating in social media, as expectations vary from site to site. In many cases - I'm thinking in particular of Facebook or OKCupid - a level of ironic detachment and insouciance is essential, or else the writer might read as naive or over-earnest.

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    While I absolutely agree with the notion of incorrect register, it doesn't inherently communicate the idea that the failure was due to cultural differences. Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 22:18

Cultural phonetic confusion might be the phrase you are looking for.

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    I believe Mondrianaire used the word 'tone' in the figurative sense, that is, 'attitude' (perceived by the reader). Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 18:46
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    Thank you CopperKettle, you are correct. I have edited the question to give a concrete example of what I am referring to. Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 18:53

Cross-cultural mannerism dystopia ?

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