The English

A Latina’s voice in an Anglo-Saxon world

Oh, how much I have learned in these 14 years living here in England. Driving on the other (wrong?) side of the road, saying ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ all the time (us Brazilians can be quite forgetful when it comes to that), remembering NOT to hug people all the time (I’ve learned this the hard way, believe me!), being on time for everything (and I thought I was punctual in Brazil!), amongst so many other things.

By far, though, the hardest thing I’ve learned (and am, in fact, still learning), is how to decipher what the English say, especially at work. I shall explain. Take this situation as an example: everyone is at work, working through an important project. Everyone can see that one person is not doing what they are supposed to be doing, at least not in the correct way. This person doesn’t realise exactly what is wrong, but carries on doing whatever their task is in the way they know how to. Facing this situation, the English just stay quiet. They simply let the person realise for themselves what it is that they are doing wrong, with no fuss. I, on the other hand, just want to go straight to that person and say: “Hey, this is wrong, the best to way to do it is like this”. This would make the person a) appreciate my help. b) do the job correctly and c) feel like they are working as part of a team that cares about the overall result. However, in the same situation above, I have witnessed… well, nothing most of the time. Or the English saying a bunch of words that don’t really mean much. They just seem to choose not to take charge of things. They prefer not to say anything substantial, they prefer not to get heavily involved and leave far too much to our interpretation.

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My theory is that, over here, people must have some kind of switch that us Latinos just didn’t have installed. This switch is the one they use when they are in a situation where saying something, reacting, imposing themselves would make them stand out and, God forbid, standing out is a no-no, so the switch is on. Since their switch is always on ‘not to react’ mode, and mine is always off (which means I’m often the one that will say stuff), I’m the one that risks being seen as ‘the trouble maker’ – all the time. Now, no one wants to be seen as the trouble maker, especially when you have really good intentions and all you actually want to do is help. You want to be seen as the person that isn’t afraid of saying something, taking risks and being passionate. For the English, though, giving your honest opinion is just not something they do very often. Their usual reaction when asked is usually… yes, silence. Or words that are so mild and neutral that they can speak for 15 minutes in their calm way and you still won’t know what they actually think. But don’t be fooled. They are thinking something, behind those eyes that say: “I’d rather not tell you the truth”, they just choose not to tell you what it is or tell you through some sort of ‘word-code’.

This table here shows what I mean and shows how much misunderstanding the English can cause…

What the English say What the English mean What foreigners understand
I hear what you say I disagree and do not want to discuss it further He accepts my point of view
With the greatest respect You are an idiot He is listening to me
That’s not bad That’s good That’s poor
That is a very brave proposal You are insane He thinks I have courage
Quite good A bit disappointing Quite good
I would suggest Do it or be prepared to justify yourself Think about the idea, but do what you like
Oh, incidentally/by the way The primary purpose of our discussion is That is not very important
I was a bit disappointed that I am annoyed that It doesn’t really matter
Very interesting That is clearly nonsense They are impressed
I’ll bear it in mind I’ve forgotten it already They will probably do it
I’m sure it’s my fault It’s your fault Why do they think it was their fault?
You must come for dinner It’s not an invitation, I’m just being polite I will get an invitation soon
I almost agree I don’t agree at all He’s not far from agreement
I only have a few minor comments Please rewrite completely He has found a few typos
Could we consider some other options I don’t like your idea They have not yet decided

The English like to live on the fence. I’m no acrobat, me. I like to be either on one side or the other, being the mid-fielder is definitely not my speciality. I like to say what I think. And so many times, being in this country, this has meant that people saw me in the wrong light. This is, by far, the most difficult cultural lesson to learn over here. For me, at least. I like to be able to take sides, to voice my opinion, to transform things, to make things better by standing up for myself, for a group of people, for the benefit of a project.

I think it’s so much easier to just say what you think clearly rather than hide it in a ‘polite’ way of speaking. Where is the good in hiding it? I’m sure the English have their own reasons, but most of the time I just can’t understand why they do it. I’m more and more convinced that this must be a game they play with us foreigners. I’m sure they are all aware, amongst themselves, of what they really mean. They just hide it from us to see our blood boil. It must be funny for them to see us losing our minds, trying to stop ourselves from telling things as they are. I like the English a lot, I even picked one to be my partner in life but, truthfully, I have no patience for games like this, with the greatest respect.

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