Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Les Trappes de la Langue..or..Living Between Two Worlds



As one who is Mother Country-born, one of the things that still can get me into trouble after more than forty years in North America is what a teacher of French once identified for me as “les nuances de la langue”.  Although one might think she might have been referring to those problems that can be created by differing, even opposing, meanings, of the same word by geographically separated speakers of a single language (being ‘knocked up’ is one that most native English speakers know), her caution applied to the way we use verbal conventions and voice tone and emphasis in what we say.  Witness the habit of English-speaking North Americans, especially the young, to go up or lilt at the end of a standard sentence, versus the tendency of most native English speakers elsewhere to drop. 

Watch out also for the degree of verbal foreplay that goes with opening up spoken communication. A striking example that I came across during my business life is people phoning from Scandinavia. Right after directly identifying themselves they go straight into what they need. There is no “how’s the family?” or even a “how are you?" unless you have become very close.  They are not being unfeeling, but you would not know unless you had spent time there.

In contrast, upon meeting or connecting over here we almost always enquire after the other’s status, whether we know them or not. So much so that it is necessary to place emphasis if you actually want a true response to queries like: “how are you?” (answer: fine!) or “how’s it goin’?” (fine!) or “wassup?” (not much!).  It took me an age to learn I never need to expound on my state unless I have determined for sure that is what is really wanted; something I now know is quite a rare event since Canadians are an outwardly un-inquisitive people.

The couple of years or so I spent living just across the Hudson River from New York City was another kind of learning experience. New Yorkers are an in-your-face people. For example, almost unprompted, they will give you a full-throated personal status report on meeting or calling, then expect yours so that you both can get right into talking hard at each other. Once acclimatized, the necessary style adjustment cues would often escape me after my short flights back up to spend time with family. In restaurants here: “Ww-aa-iter! Here Ww-aa-iter!” when shouted at the top of one’s voice and accompanied by loudly clicking fingers, did nothing to improve my teenagers’ perspectives on a possible future move to the Big Apple, let alone their belief in my essential gentlemanliness.

At another period in time I frequently flew across the Pond to and from my British-English using bosses in England or in Holland. I might stay over there up to several weeks at a time. In years later on I made many trips around major European financial centres to raise venture capital. In all these numerous and often lengthy journeys sounding something like a Yankee carpetbagger all the time was not generally wise. To maximize local comfort levels, I tuned my diction back to English grammar school days and the verbal peccadilloes that, to many Europeans, signal a good education. Back after such an adventure, flying off right away to a far-flung Canadian location (aren’t they all?) called for a major mind-shift in vocabulary and emphasis. That is something a very jet-lagged brain does not always manage too well.

In the present my standard excuse, when I notice that others may be thinking I am slipping into the proverbial pushy Brit, is to blame it on my Scots birth. That is unless there is a card-carrying Scot in the crowd, the sort who can ferret out the dubious syntax hidden amongst the aggressive pseudo-brogue.  However, since in this particular part of the world claiming a Scots origin can be even better than United Empire Loyalist credentials, one gets away with sounding a knowitall more than it deserves.  All too often it is not easy to remember that one is living between two worlds.

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