On ‘How are you’ and ‘Good thanks’

| November 8, 2013

Speaking another language isn’t just about memorising a range of words, but also about challenging your values and expanding your culture. Ina Thiel talks about conversations in supermarkets and growing as an individual and consequently a society.

A supermarket aisle, two ladies talking. Farsi, I guess. I love guessing languages. A couple pushes pass. ‘We are in Australia – we speak English’, I hear them hiss.

The expectation of foreign residents speaking the local tongue is a global one. Since moving countries, nine years ago, I have followed the Australian debate: Should we place higher demands on newcomers regarding their English language skills? Or should we propagate for increased foreign language skills in Australian schools – to better accommodate for a changing society?

There’s talk about the Australian conversation, about culture and community. Fair points. The right of choice, diversity, indigenous languages. Fair points, too. I see the problem in the discussion itself – it has become extremely polarised. Weren’t we talking about integration?

Farsi in the supermarket. This takes me back five hours. I’ve had a rough time lately, lost a number of friends, a lot of confidence: I have separated from the man I moved countries for. I am still here, sure. It’s not as easy as going back: I’ve made a home in Australia.

For the sake of cultural adjustment I have, over the past years, avoided contact with Germans. Recently, however, I was introduced to a ‘fellow German’ at work. Today we got talking in the lunchroom. We slowly switched to German once others had left, and how it hit me: My ‘fellow German’ got my jokes! Bounced off my references! Suddenly, I felt myself coming through again – the unrestricted me who knew how to work the layers of language! How long had it been? Within minutes I had a new friend – the first in a long time. Then someone entered, listened, looked at us. Frowned. ‘Two Germans meet and are rude straight away. Don’t you guys speak English?’

‘How are you?’ The cashier smiles. ‘Fine thanks!’ I smile back, proudly. I used to struggle here: Why ask, I used to wonder, if you don’t want to know. How rude! Or just superficial? Either way, I never knew what to answer. Months went by before I realised that asking ‘how are you’ was neither rude nor superficial…

‘How was your day?’ ‘Pretty good, thanks. And yours?’ On bad days, I used to be worried about lying. I also used to be worried about being fake, because in reality, I wasn’t interested in the cashier’s day. The values I was brought up with appeared not to matter here. I struggled until, one day, I realised something crucial: Small talk wasn’t about honesty. In fact, it wasn’t about the actual words spoken! It was a way of interacting, connecting with others. While it remains a form of art to me, I can enjoy it now. I’d still prefer cashiers to talk less and pack faster, but I am learning that life is not all about efficiency – a reason why I love Australia!

Following my lunchtime happiness, I attempt a joke. The cashier looks at me startled. Then he corrects my words. Um… They weren’t meant to be corrected! I chose them! This was a joke! Somewhat defeated, I remember that accent and incompetence are neighbours in many a person’s head. ‘So where are you from?’ I am asked.  ‘Adelaide’. The cashier laughs. Now this wasn’t a joke! Adelaide is what I call home. Frustration sets in. ‘No, where are you really from?’. So much for my efforts of trying to be Australian. ‘Germany’. I know the cashier is only trying to be friendly. ‘Thought so’.

Rub it in, mate! For years I have attempted to tackle this accent… Recorded myself and all. But my tongue seems clinched on the last few strings. Ever tried living with another language? It’s a bit like learning to walk on your hands!

My smile is weary now. ‘What brought you to Australia? I mean, how did you get your visa?’. This isn’t small talk anymore. I swallow, wishing for the Aussie skillset of avoiding sensitive topics. Indirect talking. I’ve got a list of ‘how to say things in an Aussie way’ pinned to my desk at work. It includes a lot of ‘woulds’ and ‘maybes’ and ‘could considers’.

On a brief note… I recall a dinner with a friend a while ago. Weeks later, this friend told another of my rudeness towards waiting-staff. Stunned, I remembered that I had been particularly friendly that night! ‘Well’, my friend said, ‘I never mentioned anything because the French waitress was just as rude back to you’. It dawned on me: A French and a German having a conversation – straightforward, that’s all. I laughed and added to my list ‘Remember to say Please and Thank youall the time!’ (Not that I don’t enjoy some extra Aussie friendliness).

Now, however, this won’t get me anywhere. Plus I am stressed. And once stressed, my fuzzy talking skills disappear instantly. I don’t know what else to say but the truth: ‘I came for a guy’.  ‘Oh, an Australian’? I nod. ‘That’s exciting!’ The chap senses something’s wrong. ‘You still with him?’ Defeated for the day, I am no longer talking. ‘So sorry’, I hear as I grip my trolley. ‘At least you are still here’.

So what’s my point? Speaking another language isn’t just about memorising a range of words. Neither is it always about choice. It is about challenging your thought patterns, habits and values; redefining and expanding your culture and personality (not to forget re-programming a number of muscles and reflexes).

Instead of focussing on whether ‘we should come further towards them’ or ‘they should come further towards us’ – wouldn’t it be exciting, if we all strove to broaden our personal horizons, to continue growing as individuals and, consequently, as a society? That way, we might also start appreciating each other for how far we have come – rather than continue to judge others on how far they need to go.