Depending on the politeness of strangers


Occasionally during feedback sessions for a new play reading, somebody will say that something in the script “took me out of out of the play,” that is that something in the play reminded them they were in an audience watching a play. This evening, something happened in real life that threw me into the world of my play. And it all started when I walked into my favorite taqueria to order a burrito.

I love language. Any language. My iTunes collection is full of popular music in nearly 70 languages, not counting Taglish. I used to be an avid reader of Language Log until I decided to trim back on my web surfing to allow more time for writing (no such luck, *sigh*).

I happen to be not-so-good at learning other languages. I’ve tried both Spanish and Cantonese; my pronunciation is usually good but my vocabulary, grammar and comprehension stink. When I go to Spanish or Cantonese restaurants I try to order in that language. Still, I have trouble following changes in conversation, which led me to tonight’s faux pas.

But let’s talk about my play first, specifically My Visit to America (MVTA hereafter), which I consider to be well into the development phase. MVTA is an alternate history, splitting from ours when in 1333, the Mongolian Empire completed its conquest of Europe and stayed. As a result, Europe never conquered America. MVTA concerns the mistakes of a London bureaucrat who tries to set up trade with America, mortgaging other people’s assets to support his efforts.

As part of creating the world of the play, I imagined that, rather than losing the informal thou-formal you distinction, English gains a third level of politeness. Many native English speakers have had difficulty with this aspect of the play, often mistaking thou as being the more formal choice. But speakers of many other languages – Korean (which served as the model for this play), Spanish, French, German and Japanese, likely among others, would not have this difficulty. Well, except…

Spanish is a special case. Most Spanish-speaking countries have kept the informal tu-formal usted distinction, but it is common in Mexico to use only tu (or at least use usted less often). The first sentences I learned in Spanish were:

“Hola Paco. Que tal? Como estas?”
Hello Frankie. Wazzup? How are (informal) you?

and the reply

“Bien, gracias. Y tu?”
Good, thanks. And (informal) you?

I’m guessing one wouldn’t use Que tal with someone you would use the formal you with, so the formal version might be something like.

“Hola Francisco. Como esta?”
Hello Francis. How are (formal) you?

and the reply

“Bien, gracias. Y usted?”
Good, thanks. And (formal) you?

(Nowadays, Mexican Spanish-speakers often say “Que pasó?” What happened? instead of “Que tal?” What’s happening, but that belongs in Language Log, not Exit, Pursued by a Lark.)

Anyway, the point is that one can give offense by using the wrong politeness level when addressing another person.

Back to the Mexico thing. A few months ago, a Spanish-speaking contractor who was soliciting my business greeted me:

“Que tal? Como estas?”
Wazzup? How are (informal) you?

and I replied, because I didn’t catch that he was using the informal you with someone he had just met

“Bien, gracias. Y usted?”
Good, thanks. And (formal) you?

I may have sounded a bit stiff, but no offense would have been caused. I realized the mismatch a few minutes later and later used informal you with him.

But tonight it was the other way around. The taquerista (is that what you call the folks who put tacos together?) greeted me with:

“Como esta?”
How are (formal) you?

and I replied, because I didn’t catch that he was using the formal you with someone who’s been a customer of his for several years

“Bien, gracias. Y tu?”
Good, thanks. And (informal) you?

And his mood fell. Instantly. I’m pretty sure he knows after all these years that I’m not fluent in Spanish, that about all I can do is (barely) order a burrito and that getting angry was not called for. But it stung. And he switched to English. No change in service, but a definite distancing.

I rehearsed an apology if only to be sure I got it right, and said it to him in my wretched Spanish on my way out.

“Señor, lo siento. Mi español es muy malo. No es automático. Tiene buen noche.”
Sir, I’m sorry. My Spanish is very bad. It’s not automatic. (Formal) You have a good night.”

He replied “Buenos noches” (good night) and I left.

I just looked it up. Imperative have is informal ten or formal tenga, not tiene. But at least tiene was formal for the present tense and there’s no mistaking the respect of “señor.” I can continue to show my face in that taqueria.

In MVTA, Jochi, the London bureaucrat intentionally uses the informal thou with the American Talks With Strangers because he doesn’t respect the Americans. And Talks With Strangers reacts with anger at the slight. But I learned tonight that even when it’s careless or arising from my disfluency with another language, it can still hurt.

Obviously, I hope I learn to be less clumsy in my response to greetings in Spanish, and I wish it never happened in the first place. But, given that it did happen, I hope I can use this knowledge when revising my play.

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