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Speaking in tongues

Nicole Dyer Griffith MA Thursday, May 18 2017

Last week, while standing in very cold rainy weather somewhere on Fifth Avenue, New York, I stopped a yellow cab and stated my destination.

The cab driver seemed less than impressed that the journey was a mere ‘short drop’ as we would say in Trinidad and Tobago, and began muttering in his native language.

To compound this, he made a call, and began his terse conversation in his native language (not English).

Unbeknown to this driver, I was somewhat familiar with his native tongue, and picked up that he had mentioned “this is why he did not like dropping off these people”.

Readers who know me very well will no doubt fully appreciate how that story ended. Needless to say, there are several areas for constructive deconstruction in this scenario. The first being the matter of discrimination and labelling, and the second, being covert conversations.

Covert conversations, as I choose to define it, are conversations held in the company of others, who choose with whom they wish to discuss a matter (be it you or another matter) in a language with which you may not be familiar.

Have you ever been in the company of others, when for no specific reason one or two people chose to interact between themselves in a language foreign to you? When this occurs, the first thing that usually traverses the mind is that they are speaking about something that they may not want me to know about, or they are speaking about me. These thoughts and experiences can lead to many untenable scenarios for all parties involved. The other side to this experience understands the circumstances of the engagement.

It may be very likely that you may be in a special circumstance, where the language that may be foreign to you is native to most guests or people at a special event. In this vein, it is perfectly understandable for the guests to interact in their native tongue.

Examples of such events include diplomatic events, national commemorative events (native to the country of origin), even privately hosted events where the majority of guests may speak the same tongue.

These special circumstances aside, if you are in the company of a small group at a standard social event or ‘lime’ as we call it in Trinidad and Tobago, and in your presence people begin to speak in another tongue with which you may not be familiar, sends a very clear message that will be construed as being impolite and bordering on offensive. And while we do live in a global community with many various cross cultures, languages and customs, impolite behaviour crosses borders, and one should simply always attempt to understand what it would be like if the shoe were on the other foot.

The other very important lesson learnt from my cabbie experience is to never underestimate anyone in any circumstance. As I mentioned, this driver perhaps felt comfortable in his assessment of me, with the logic that ‘people like me’ may not be familiar with other languages, practices and principles, hence feeling comfortable enough to engage in his boorish behaviour, safely tucked away in his ignorance of what I may or may not ‘know.’ It is very easy for us to make quick judgments based on our own life experiences. However, such judgments can be flawed and can lead to very intemperate circumstances. What transpired with my cab covert conversation experience? New York City may have gained one very schooled cab driver as I write.



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