Speech and Hierarchy

In this blog post I will be sharing how I am experiencing cultural shock, and compare the culture of the UK with the one I am coming from in terms of how people may be perceived in regards to their class and speech patterns.

I have lived in places where hierarchies and social classes were less important. As a child, I felt a faint admiration for the wealthy living in bigger flats or having more opportunities. After witnessing the worst economic crisis in Argentina the admiration turned into a feeling of injustice, but I never felt I was less than anyone who was wealthy. In Argentina, we had a human interest for others that could vanish social class differences. Perhaps that is why people in northern countries say Latin speakers are warm.

When I came to England I was amused at how brief and concise people were at work, but I also got culturally shocked. I felt I had no longer access to people in the same way I did in Latin countries. There were invisible barriers. I was informed that there were two factors that created them: shyness and hierarchies.

Later on, I went to a conference where people did not participate as they would in a Latin country. They were silent and reflective. The American speaker said smiling: “You British people are so shy.” I am a little bit shy myself and I was relieved by seeing the English being equally inadequate at greetings, how they use false modesty when they feel proud of themselves. They were more gentle, more sensitive. But they were also more distant; as if they needed an invisible protective barrier.

I am living now in a society that preserves privacy, discretion and the personal space as something almost sacred. In a place where e-mails and text messages are preferred over phone calls. I feel safe in my shyness, in my calm comfort zone. How convenient, but how well is this serving the human need to connect with others?

British anthropologist Kate Fox says, speaking of the English, that “Families and friends are scattered, and even if our relatives or friends live nearby, we are often too busy or too tired to visit. We are constantly on the move, spending much of our time commuting to and from work either among strangers on trains and buses, or alone and isolated in our cars. These factors are particularly problematic for the English, as we tend to be more reserved and socially inhibited than other cultures; we do not talk to strangers, or make friends quickly and easily.”

One day I risked trying to turn a work dialogue into a more personal conversation. I was not successful, but it help me realise how compartmentalized things are. There is a defined space and moment for every activity. And this goes beyond being organized. For instance, at work, you have to discuss almost exclusively work issues. I had to let go my frankness. I had to stop expressing myself in the way I used to. I prioritized a more detached, robotic interaction with people I barely knew.

To remedy the feeling of isolation, a friend said, I would have to start joining my colleagues in the pub after work. In there people would get drunk and disinhibited, showing a more authentic side. The problem was I was tired and busy. And alcohol does not disinhibit me, it makes me sick.

Was there any other way of connecting with people? Was there any other way I could start a conversation at a given place and that would be just fine? Was I observing well the British code of conduct? I did not know where to find the unwritten codes that made Brits act so mysteriously. How was I being socially perceived?

I did not know where to find the unwritten codes that made Brits act so mysteriously. How was I being socially perceived?

I watched a video on Youtube done by an English teacher. On it, she explained almost apologetically, that what you will find here not a meritocracy. Social classes are very important, and what matters is what your surname is and what family you are coming from. She said that people here have the reflex to try to find in which social class you are. Based on that and the perception they have of themselves –where they are on the spectrum- they decide how to relate to you.

How do people identify your origins? In your speech. What perhaps explains why they often fail to fit foreigners into the British system of hierarchies, except when they are extremely wealthy, validated as upper class.

What followed was a list of expressions and words that you should not use in a work interview if you want to be positively perceived. Those expressions, she explained, come from the working class and the under class.

If some natives are going through the trouble of modifying their speech to fit in a particular job, what is left for people who are learning English? It would take years to someone like me to sound remotely convincing.

“You get no say in the world you are born into, you don’t decide your name, you don’t decide where you come from. […] You don’t decide how the world judges a person like you,” says actor Bobby Carnnavale in a Nike commercial(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivqhMxjV7j8&t=3s).

Another English teacher, Kellam Barta, said in a Ted Talk that “there is no such a thing as correct English”. Language is something constantly changing and evolving (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEFM905EOUk).

Language should not be used to exclude people. Let’s use it to connect with each other.

The glass half full approach

I am sitting at a bar with five other people.

‘I can’t read the news,’ says a woman in my left.

As a Journalism student, this calls my attention.

‘It is depressing’ says another woman in front of me.

According to Journalist and investigator Cathrine Gyldensted, negative news create “learned helplessness and passivity in people.”

‘I’m sure there are more positive news than most news outlets show. It should be more balanced,’ I say

‘Google Constructive Journalism and Positive Journalism,’ says a woman at my right.

Constructive Journalism is defined as: “Reporting that includes positive and solution-focused elements in order to empower audiences”, using conventional reporting.

‘The glass half full’ approach is getting into mainstream press newsrooms like The Guardian and the BBC. It is now part of the course in some universities. Sean Dagan Wood, who gave a Ted Talk in Sussex University in 2014, said that news affect our view of “who we are, about the world and about what is possible. […] We need stories that inspire.”

An example of Constructive Journalism is the crow-funded magazine Positive News. The number of supporters it has is increasing in Europe. Why didn’t I hear about this before?

Is positive reporting realistic? How would they tackle difficult subjects? I will find out when I receive my Positive News magazine.

 

 

 

 

Beds and bananas

We just moved to a new place. My partner and I are assembling an Ikea bed.

Today is the hottest day of the year. We are sweating.

I am ‘learning’ how to do it while holding the tools for my partner. The floor can play the same role, so I’ve given myself the glamorous role of a magician assistant.

He is trying to screw metal into metal. That’s challenging. I know because I tried. ‘This is rough to the touch’ I say, ‘They should work more on making edges less sharp.’ With that statement I drop the tools and lie on the carpet.

I start presenting his magic from the floor.

I think we are stuck.

It looks like a good time to make some procrastination.

I give up. If it were for me we would sleep in the floor for the rest of our days.

My sense of duty keeps my mind busy, though. What would a magician assistant do in the face of adversity? Give him another magic wand? Distract him with something more palatable than the task in hand? Shall I mention a banana cake?

It doesn’t seem the right moment for that for two reasons. One, I don’t look line a magician’s assistant. I have the languid exhaustion of a person covered in sweat. Two and most importantly, he is well and dealing with the task in hand.

The job requires him to become more savage in his actions. He is determined. Insistent. I see him starting to transform into a slender Hulk. Before he starts to make it personal with that bed I mention a banana cake. He grins; he says it would be nice to eat some.

He accidentally bends one of the metal parts. With a rough but calculated move that startles me, he puts it back into place. He gets it done. After a few minutes we are putting the mattress.

Later that day, I am in the bus stop. I’m going to Tesco to buy some ingredients for a banana cake. There is a man smoking.

A bus shows up. I gesture for it to stop.

It passes by.

The man looks at me surprised. He says nothing. He looks away and continues smoking.

I have a vague sensation of déjà vu. I’m angry.

I was born in Buenos Aires. I would understand it if a bus doesn’t stop there.

A bus stop can be a tree or a corner with no sign. You would know that it is a bus stop because a local told you. In Buenos Aires, even when you are standing in the wrong tree and signalling, buses will stop. Similarly, if you want to get off in the middle of traffic, they will open the door for you. A friend used to ask them to take her for free and they would accept. In there, bus drivers feel like helping you at times.

If you catch a bus driver at the wrong time, though, he might feel like not helping you. Maybe he is going too fast and he realises you where there when he already passed you. Or he may feel like not stopping.

I’m quite sure this bus driver, a Londoner, saw me today and knows his duties. I will write to TFL. I will…

Then I remember.

In the UK buses come from the right rather than from the left. I was trying to stop the bus from the wrong side of the road.

Again.

The smoking man must be thinking I am a tourist.

 

 

 

Running away from noise

I am becoming a professional in the field of moving flats. No more pillows in refuse bags to be confused with rubbish. This time everything is in tidy boxes. Even our bedside tables.

I suggested hiring a company to carry things for us. My partner and I have bad backs. We were just standing there, offering these guys a glass of water. Telling them what to leave and what to take, where to leave things in the new flat.

We never did this before. It is such a nice job. I felt guilty when they were at sight and pretended to be cleaning. Or moving things from one box to another and vice versa. I was a great manageress. When I saw one of them sweating, I said ‘The Summer is finally here!.’

How many times a year does a person move? Once, twice? As a foreign I landed here without really knowing how safe a given neighbourhood is, or whom will you be sharing it with.

Why did I move so often? Well… I have a problem with noise. I didn’t know about this at first.

My 92-years-old grandmother, who asked the Doctor ‘not to shout’ at her if possible, since her sense of hearing was working well, told me about this in a waiting room. She lived in the countryside, where she heard for a couple of nights some pans banging. Her siblings couldn’t hear anything. She thought she was mad. The next day a man with a car moved by a horse, showed up in town. He was selling casseroles, which were hanging and banging. That day she proved to her siblings that she possessed a super power, and she presented it as such to me. My father also inherited this ‘superpower,’ only to sleep in a noise-isolated room, wearing earplugs when my mom snores. I used to laugh at how startled and alarmed he used to look after hearing a door bang, until now.

‘No more door bangs from our flat mate,’ I say to my partner as we have a meal in our new home.

We live in a noisy world. It can be a bit overwhelming to hear sounds louder than they are. To sooth myself I give myself lists of them as they are happening at a given time. A man in the street, on his phone, saying ‘I will not be going to work until I get paid!.’. A dog barking. A car passing by. The traffic in the avenue two blocks from us. An ambulance. Children shouting in the playground of a school. Two plains. A helicopter. The fridge. You get the idea.

We lived in the wrong neighbourhood many times. One time we had to move because we found in the newspaper that ours was ‘one of the most dangerous in the UK.’ Other times because our neighbours didn’t seem to mind producing or hearing noise. I will give you an example of this. A mother is trying to encourage her child to be quiet. She does this by shouting louder than him.

This is the right place, I think. The Thames close by, where we can watch the patterns the wind makes on the water. The trees and the flowers with a fresh scent in summer nights. No more competing with flatmates at 8 AM, as now we have a toilet en suite. Most importantly, no more disagreements with my partner after dinner, as now we have a dishwasher.

These wonders made us overlook a school nearby. As we hear the children I say:

‘In Winter children will voice their happiness and disappointments in the interior of buildings.’

‘They are quieter here, though ’ he says.

Just when I start picturing myself napping with earplugs, he quickly says:

‘Did you know rubbish collectors come only twice a week?’

‘ That’s good news’ I say. That used to wake me up.

After our meal we start the dishwasher. We smile lovingly at each other.

We go for a walk. We can see the City from here.

‘In here you can listen your own steps as you walk. That’s a good indicator,’ he says.

‘What else can we ask for?’ I say.

Ask me again in a few months.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mirena, such a nice name

“Give me a cough,” says the Doctor.

I’m in a lithotomy position.

The Doctor sends the nurse to hold my hand. I feel like I’m about to give birth.

‘Is this going to be painful?’ I ask.

I get a vague answer.

This is the second time I attempt to do something like this.

I am so nervous. I was given a blanket to cover myself and ended up wearing it as a scarf. The nurse laughs and says she will cover me with it.

They ask me to get close to the border of the bed. They lift the blanket. I wonder why is there in the first place.

They ask if I am allergic to latex. Because the Doctor is not wearing a uniform I start thinking she may be an impostor. They are supposed to put a condom in the ultrasound scanner, but it is invisible. I feel I am about to have unprotected sex with a scanner. She introduces the cold scanner with gel. This doesn’t hurt. I’m doing well.

While they scan me I think about lunchtime at work. One of my colleagues said she takes the pill because she heard that this is SO painful, just like the first part of labour.

I remind myself that Mirena – the name of the contraceptive coil- is a beautiful name, meaning ‘of the sea.’ How painful can it be?

Besides, I know pain. I’m a pain soldier. I will write about this when this is over. Just like mothers like explaining how painful their labour was while scaring young women.

I will be like a war veteran, with thousands of stories to tell. People may like hearing about the pain of others, that’s what fills a lot of newspapers.

The Doctor starts the procedure. I’m in pain, but they just dilated my cervix. They didn’t put anything yet. I thought it was finished. I understand why people describe this kind of procedure as invasive. Maybe it is designed exclusively to test how much pain a person can take with no anaesthetics. I asked for it, but they want to do it without it.

The Doctor makes pressure. I am in so much pain that I ask her to stop. She does. I’m trying to explain what I am experiencing. The nurse says to me the word I might be looking is stabbed.

I feel like running away from that bed, but I’m asked not to move. I‘m asked to breathe deeply. The Doctor says ‘Keep your bottom down.’ The nurse says I can shout, but not move. If I shout my partner outside will be alarmed.

After trying twice I say I need a break. The Doctor says that she can’t give me that. ‘Your muscle will go into a spasm and we won’t be able to proceed,’ she says.

This is so difficult. My legs are shaking on the stirrups. The nurse is holding my hand. She wants me to tell her about the Rio carnival in Brazil. She thinks I’m Brazilian. I want to tell her I like her Afro hair, but it would be a bit strange in a moment like this.

The Doctor says that she can see I can do it.

‘I can’t’ I say. It’s too painful’.

She gives me a choice. I can bear it or walk away without it.

I can’t think clearly in pain. She says ‘You wanted this.’

That’s what I was told when I has my ears pierced with a man with a machine at the age of 6. They did one and I started crying so badly that he didn’t know what to do. I swore and said that wearing earrings is so silly. If we needed this we would be born with pierced ears. He said I could leave it like this and only have one.Was he kidding me? My friends would call me a coward. They were so tough; they said they did it to themselves with some ice and a needle. My mom started complaining about the unused earring going into waste. This whim of mine was costing her money, she said. That’s when the man said ”You wanted this.”

Now she says: “You said you wanted the coil”.

I need to have this done. My Doctor said so.

I nod. She proceeds again.

My cervix is dilated. My sensitive cervix that is made for love. Instead, I feel like the prostitute of the film Se7en, just before she died.

I was told the whole procedure takes fifteen minutes, but I feel I’ve been there for an hour. The nurse is making an effort, but she doesn’t seem to be a great conversationalist. She just asked me where I live. What is she going to ask me next, where do I study? She does that. I have to put myself in charge.

I ask the nurse where is she from. She says: Democratic Republic of…”

Just when I recall I have trouble remembering the country of origin of new people I meet, I jump in pain.

The Doctor says ‘It’s done.’

She says she never was so scared in her life because of the way I jumped. Before I can react and run away from there, she introduces something else. She is double-checking that she didn’t harm me. It is the cold scanner again.

Everything is fine.

I start relaxing, although I’m still in shock. I let my head rest in the bed and sigh.

My legs are still shaking. I don’t remember what to do next. For a moment I don’t remember how to dress back.

Then, I have the feeling I usually have after a plane I’m travelling in takes off successfully.

I feel light. Relieved. I have triumphed.

I look at the ultrasound screen. I can see the coil in the centre of my uterus, like a plane among black and white clouds.

I have a little sky in my lady parts.

 

Hungarian wisdom

My Hungarian friend Tamara and I exchange expressions translated from our own languages quite often.

Here is an example of what I said to her one day:

“In Spanish we say ‘a otra cosa, mariposa,’ which is a rime meaning ‘Move on, butterfly.”

She started giving me back expressions from her language one day after a drunken scene in a Christmas company dinner.

The Monday after the event, one of our male colleagues at work requested her politely to refrain from squeezing his nipples through his shirt the next time she gets drunk. She couldn’t remember the event.

When I was working full time and something like this would happen, I would announce to everyone that The Most Interesting Thing Of The Week just happened.

She went back to her seat next to me that day with her face red of embarrassment and laughter.

She said: ‘No wonder lasts more than three days.’

I asked for a clarification. She said that in Hungary this is an expression that means people often forget things after a few days.

Today Tamara, our Spanish friend Leire and me are having lunch together. I’m working there only Fridays. So I ask:

-Did anything interesting happen this week?

They share a blank expression.

Tamara says:

-Not even the grass is growing.

I am a little bit confused.

The first time I heard her speaking about grass was when she was single and referring to her body hair as grass, as not shaving very often.

The second time she talked about grass was when she told us that her father, using a grass trimmer around the garden, accidentally trimmed all her mom’s flowers.

She says:

-In Hungary, ‘not even the grass is growing’, means nothing is happening.

Tamara thinks for a moment. Then she says:

– Leire broke a glass against the table!

I raise my eyebrows. They both laugh.

I’m about to say it, but Tamara does it:

-That makes it… The Most Interesting Thing Of The Week!

I am speechless.

I can go full time and regain my status as The Announcer by being there when the event happens, or I can let this go.

I didn’t know this was so important for me.

I can let this go. I can move on.

Or… after work, I can buy Tamara a mocktail, make it pass as the original version and wait to see if she feels drunk.

Texting Anxiety

By C. G. Medina

I get a text message from my partner saying: ‘I’m on my way home’. I am surprised that he decided to let me know that when he is downstairs receiving a parcel from the post office. I reply: ‘All right, I am at home.’

When he is back, he lets me know he sent that message one day and three hours earlier, and that my lack of texting skills is exasperating.

‘What would be a reasonable wait to you?’ I ask

‘Four minutes,’ he says.

‘That’s too little’ I say

‘That’s the average’

‘He must be wrong,’ I think. My average answering time is between 4 hours and 2 days. Just like an e-mail! It is common sense! I would find it stressful to answer to all of my messages as they arrive. I would feel constantly interrupted in my daily tasks. I would have little time to plan appointments, to consult my diary. When someone is letting me know about his or her problems and feelings, I want to take some time to incubate a possible answer and come up with the right one. I like thinking before I text. I didn’t know there was a Text Etiquette.

What happens if I answer later? How would others feel? I start searching for answers in the Internet. If the recipient ‘is slow to answer the Text’ says one website, in ‘99% of the cases’, it is an indication that the recipient ‘lacks in interest in you’, and they see replying as a chore. The website coaches the sender into stop texting the recipient and work on their social skills and social appeal.

I need to find something I find reasonable and that backs up my texting habits.

I find the Two Day Rule, in which if it takes someone two days to get back to me, I have two days to get back to her or him. That feels good.

We live in a fast world. I get it. However, just because I have a phone in my pocket, I will not be available to be found at any time. I like having my privacy. I want to have the best of both worlds. I like the convenience of texting someone when I am arriving late, or finding someone in a crowded shopping center with the help of my phone. I also like ignoring my phone when I am concentrated on a task and I don’t happen to have social life responsibilities at hand

‘Concentrate on your job and you will forget your other troubles’ said author William Feather. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I will get on with some work and forget that I don’t have the capacity to answer to a text message in four minutes.