Thursday, August 22, 2013

Let's Talk, Not Judge

We've all seen it before in movies.  (And I do pray you've only seen it movies and never in real life).  The scene involves an American and an Asian (typically Chinese), where the American readily and ignorantly assumes that the Asian does not speak, nor understand English, and so he ends up speaking ever so s----l---o---w-----l------y, and in the process inadvertently raising his voice which turns everything into a borderline scream.

It's kind of funny, and ALWAYS makes the American character (never the Asian) look foolish.  Fortunately, such an extreme situation has never happened to me. I've had people wonder about my ethnicity, and also have had some wonder how I learned to speak English so well.  I've also certainly met a few who avoided me for conversations simply because they prejudged me based on my race, automatically assuming that it would be a pain to talk to me, whether it's because of my accent or lack of intellect.  Ironically though, people who always assume that I'm not 'smart' enough for them are usually at least one of three things:  much less formally educated than I am; are conservative in their political and general worldview; or ones who have never traveled much before or have never ever been exposed to other cultures. Go figure.  If it's none of the above, usually that leaves only one other explanation:  It's either the person's a plain racist or a bigot.  Different terms, same species.

A very good friend of mine has been experiencing an annoyance of this kind recently.  My friend is also Filipino like myself.  She went to university, then successfully finished law school, practiced law and in between managed to obtain two more post graduate degrees from two other foreign universities, one of which was here in the U.S.  Suffice to say she is highly educated and is a professional, now working with other professionals here in the States.  The 'annoyance' stems from the fact that one of her co-workers, when conversing with her, always stops himself when he uses idioms.  He pauses and always asks my friend if she understands what he means when he says things like "slap on the wrist", or "ball is in your court", or some other commonly used idiom. My friend is non-confrontational, so other than assuring the co-worker that she does understand, she doesn't really roll her eyes or show him that she feels insulted by all this. The co-worker is not malicious when he does this and is really just sincerely well-meaning. That's why my simple advice to my friend was for her to say something like this when she gets into that situation again with this person:

"I'm not going to beat around the bush.  
When you check to see if I understand what is normally 
a piece of cake to common people, it either makes me just want to 
either clam up or foam in the mouth.  
The point is I have a good brain.  And I'm qualified to be here.  You need to trust that when I got hired, 
people did not bet on the wrong horse.  
You also need to trust that when we are discussing work, 
we are on the same page...always. Kapish?"

That ought to take care of it, don't you think?

File:Two-people-talking-logo.jpg To be honest, personally, it's not formal English that people like me normally have trouble with, but slang terms and expressions. Yes, I'm educated. And though my degrees are from a Philippine (and not American) university, I've had both my undergraduate and master's degree evaluated here in the States and they've been certified as equivalent to U.S. degrees.  Despite that, and all the exposure I had to Western culture while living in the Philippines, I still won't claim to be familiar with all the less formal aspects of the English language (and culture).  Maybe it's also my age and my being a bit old-fashioned when it comes to grammar and language in general that prevent me from fully grasping 'expressions' or modern day slang with all their nuances. Here are a few examples I can think of right now.

One time I was watching the HGTV show of one of their more popular female designers.  She saw a wall paper that had a really interesting design which obviously pleased her in terms of how it made the room look.  She said, "That wall paper is jut ridiculous". Since when did ridiculous become a positive term?

Then on another real estate show, a buyer was shown a vacation home in Hawaii where there was a breathtaking view of the ocean.  The buyer said, "Whoa!  This view is sick!"  I took a pause, literally, felt utterly disoriented for a brief moment, and then was forced to learn my lesson right there and then. Who would've thought 'sick' would evolve into something that would represent such a positive and pleasurable experience?  

I once sent out an online invitation to some friends and someone responded with "I'm down" followed by a smiley face. I was completely confused by this. I thought she was saying no to the invite but I wondered why there was a happy face.  All along, I thought 'down' meant something negative; a 'no' response'; a turning down of an offer made.  Who knew I was soooo wrong?

I'm sure my list will continue to fluctuate.  I'm sure that as I grasp the real meanings of these slang words or expressions, new ones will emerge that will continue to confuse me a little.  But don't sweat it.  Don't worry too much about me or people like me who have English only as a second language. Speak as you normally would; not to confuse, not to exclude anyone, but merely to express your self as best and as clearly as you can.  Have conversations with us like you normally would.  Open yourself to the possibility that you can also learn from us, even if it's just from the mere experience of speaking with someone new.  We don't need to look alike, have the same skin color, or accent for us to genuinely understand each other.  We only need to have open minds.

Are you a native English speaker who has an interesting story or insight to share involving conversing with non-native English speakers?  

Or maybe you're one like me, having English only as a second language? Have you been in less-than-ideal situations because of challenges in communication?


  1. Hmm, my advice to your friend is to tell the co-worker that she knows the most common idiomatic expressions. And to trust that if she doesn't, she'll for sure speak up and ask him what he means! :)

  2. LOVE how you told your friend to reply to the condescending coworker! Brilliant!

    Also, even people whose first language is English do not always understand or know ALL the many idioms there are. In addition to that, their grammar and spelling are atrocious. It's hypocritical to act condescending towards another human being because you assume they don't know something you think you do. Nobody knows everything. Nobody. It furthermore bothers me when people who ONLY speak the English language have demeaning things to say about people who, although perhaps do not speak English as fluently as a native speaker, can speak a multitude of languages, which is far more impressive in my opinion than knowing a single language, even if you know it exceptionally well.

    Great post as always!

    Rachel :-)

  3. The English language is the most confusing of all spoken languages out there, more so learning it. So I believe there is nothing wrong about asking what certain idioms/ expressions or words mean -- better ask to have a correct response than assume the understanding and have a wrong answer, right? The way I look at it, I am proud of my root and Filipino accent (if there's anything obvious) -- it's unique and exotic!! Yup, EXOTIC is the word :-)

  4. For a second "I'm down" went by me too and I know it well. I just never use it in the slang way. In the context of the invite response I probably would have understood. I would love to witness that response to the co-worker. That would be hilarious.

  5. This is an awesome post. I work in customer service and I see my colleagues belittling those whose first language was not English. It's bad enough that sometimes it's their coworkers but from a customer service aspect it's even more disappointing when they treat customers that way. I will admit that sometimes it can be frustrating when I can't understand what is being said but I just think back to my travels in Spain (I was by myself and spoke very little Spanish) and how everyone was so nice to me. I really admire anyone who speaks two languages and it always makes for intriguing conversation. I love learning about different cultures and places so I flock to anyone with an accent (that sounds creepy, sorry). Once again awesome post.

    1. You made a very good point, Dee! Really, all we need is a little bit more open mindedness and tolerance. Thanks for your thoughts!

  6. Well, Joy, from my experience your friend is doing the right thing: you can't fight against stereotypes. Believe me, I have tried. I sometimes wonder what would happen when to the well-meaning people who keep being condescending to us non-native were send to a foreign country. It might come to a shock to them that there is a world outside the US/UK.

  7. Since I work with 20-somethings (as well have have daughters in that age range), I'm more exposed to the slang around here (California). I'd feel silly if I adopted any of it, though. It would seem like I was trying too hard to be young and hip.

    I've been on the receiving end of condescension because of my non-Caucasian looks. In Hawaii, a woman struck up a conversation with me and interrupted herself to peer closer at me and ask, "Do you speak English?"

    On the flipside, being among fellow Filipinos doesn't always equate with acceptance. On a Facebook group with my high school batchmates, a few women felt it was acceptable to openly mock my paltry attempts to converse in Tagalog. I was a good sport about it, but it was interesting to observe that even as they were teasing me, they were revealing their insecurity about not being fluent in English. I wasn't judging them and would never dream of pointing out their errors (I charge to edit! I'll only do it for clients, haha.) Why couldn't they give me the same courtesy? My parents spoke Bicolano to each other and exclusively English to us. I spoke English before I learned the existence of Tagalog on my first day of kindergarten. English IS my first language. Why would I pretend otherwise? Why would they expect me to be exactly the stereotype of "the native Filipino"?

    1. Oh, I never knew that about you, that your main exposure in terms of languages are Bicolano and English. Interesting and thanks for sharing that Marie! Yes, you're right that it goes both ways (or any other way, for that matter). It's never good when people pay more attention to how people speak rather than what they'r actually saying.

  8. We get confused by all those things as our language evolves too. I don't know half of what the hell people are talking about on Twitter!

    1. I agree with you, Marie. Don't you think it's entertaining to check out some hashtags sometimes? I see a lot of bizarre ones, haha!


Let me know your thoughts!