In order to keep up to date with what’s going on back home, I regularly tune in to the BBC news to catch the Prime Minister delivering one of his elaborate broadcasts. But try as I might to stay focused on the lengthy slideshow of stats, I find myself distracted by the peculiar language he uses to address the nation.
I sympathise with those learning English who may have been under the false impression that a Bo-Jo speech would make for a good listening exercise (what could be more authentic than the PM of the UK after all), only to be discouraged by the extravagant metaphors and Olde English that spills forth from his lips.
His recent quotes have left me amused, confused, and cringing more than a little. In a recent attempt to boost morale, he announced the “distant bugle of the scientific cavalry coming over the brow of the hill” (in reference to the COVID vaccine), whilst warning that even though ‘tis the season to be jolly, “it’s also the season to be jolly careful”.
And I still have no idea what “social lubricant” means…
Complicated and stuffy, it confirmed for me that there is a lot to be said for simplicity. And while I don’t dismiss the fun you can have with the English language; I believe there is a right time to play with it (and delivering a crucial message during a global pandemic is not it).
But simple often means direct and there is a fine line between the two. The “directness” terrified me when I first landed on Spanish soil (Oh Boris, what have you done to me?), but I appreciate now that it can be more than a little helpful for understanding culture, and language.
But like most experiences, I learn the hard way.
During one online Spanish lesson, just as I was getting into the grammar groove, the buzzer in our apartment sounded. Conscious of being on camera, I stood up to reach for the receiver, composed myself and answered with my finest “Hola”.
It was just the postie needing access. I let him in and returned to my lesson, relieved not to have been put on the spot with additional conversation, only to find the teacher laughing.
Worried that I must have a ‘hole in my leggings’ scenario, I nervously asked what was funny.
“You answered the door and said ‘hola’” he said, smiling.
I was perplexed. What could possibly be wrong with that?!
“Why, what would you have said”? I asked, defensive but curious.
He advised that if I wanted to sound in the least bit like a local then answering with “Sí?” or “Dime” would be better alternatives (the same goes for phone calls too apparently).
No, no. I explained that in English, to answer the door or phone to someone and say “Yes?” or “Tell me” would be considered cold and unwelcoming, not to mention well, rude.
He looked amused, and smug.
“So, you say ‘hello’, and the other person says ‘hello’, and then you say ‘hello’ again and you just keeping saying ‘hello’ to each other until someone leaves?”
Not exactly, although it was a fair observation. I agreed to consider changing my method of meeting and greeting and we moved on. But it got me thinking…
All my life, the rules of good manners have been drilled into me, and this ‘British politeness’ is a characteristic universally renowned. And now here I am, suddenly experiencing a shift.
Here, por favor and gracias are not dished around in any given interaction the way I would use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ (note: the waiter does not expect to be begged and thanked four times for bringing you a Fanta limón) and saying “sorry” is saved for things you really are sorry for.
These are hard habits to break. But if I am ever to sound like a local, I must embrace the idea that the things I would generally consider rude or impolite, are perfectly, perfectly normal.
Because it is not rudeness, it is merely cultural and linguistic differences. It is variety. And it is practicality. Why use three words when you could use one? Why say “hello” when you answer the phone when you could cut straight to the chase? (I remain unconvinced about this one).
Of course, the Spanish language has its own formalities. There are two types of “you” for example. The formal, respectful ‘Usted’ is reserved for addressing an elderly person, or your boss. And then there is ‘Tú’ which is for your friends, family and everyone else. This distinction of respect is something you really don’t want to get wrong…
There are new rules to learn, and old ones to set aside.
So, I took the advice of my Spanish teacher on board, determined that the next time anyone rang my buzzer and caught me unawares, I would demand (albeit politely) for the purpose of the caller.
But no matter how many times I try, a cheery “Hola” is always on the tip of my tongue.
Old habits die hard. Sorry.