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.


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