Monday 27 July 2009

Reaction to Rudeness

Two tales follow. Both are true as witnessed by me and are indicative of something, but I’m not sure what.

Story number One: I was sharing a dining table with a well-spoken and seemingly intelligent English lady and two Spanish students. In the course of the conversation I discovered that the English lady, like me, lived in Spain. She lived in Torrevieja, down in the south coast near Murcia, famous for its clusters of ex-patriot communities. She was what I have given the name of “Costa Brit”, although there are “ghettos” of several other nationalities also. The word “ghetto”, to me, has a somewhat negative connotation, but that was how a Spaniard who also lives in that region described it to me.

She was telling us of her life and that she had come to Spain on her retirement. We soon found out that she had lived there for thirteen years.
“Your Spanish must be quite good by now”, I suggested.
Now remember, we are sharing a table with two students who are reasonably fluent in English.
With a disparaging flap of her hand she declared, “Oh, where I live we don’t have to bother with all that gobbledygook”.

The Oxford dictionary defines “Gobbledygook” as “Language that is meaningless, unintelligible or nonsense. Taken from the sound a turkey makes.”

I am sure, thankfully, the two students did not have that particular word in their English vocabulary, but sharing a table with them, I was embarrassed that one of my compatriots could be so derogatory about the language of the country where she and I now live. Stunned, and in an attempt to have our fellow diners not think I was of the same opinion I remarked that that was a shame. That the Spanish culture was so interesting and varied that she was surely missing out by not being able to read the language or take a full part in any local event.

Her reply was a statement that, “Where I live we don’t have any need of that nonsense”.

Story number two: Again, we were a mixed group of Spanish and English speakers. Among our number was a couple from California. He played the guitar and she sang very prettily. One evening they were entertaining us and after a number of songs in English they sang that beautiful Spanish song, “Gracias a la vida”. As soon as they began a young American girl who had been enjoying and joining in with the songs so far observed, rather loudly, “What’s the point of this? It’s all yada yada yada”, and proceeded to try to engage another girl in conversation, drowning out the music in our part of the room. I am pleased to relate that another American told her to “shut up and listen to the music”.

You can too. It's a beautiful song! The You Tube clip below is sung by Mercedes Sosa.

My gut reaction to these two events is that the two people concerned were both rude and insulting. However, neither the Spaniards at my table, or those standing near to the young American woman seemed concerned. Rather it was a case that I was insulted on their behalf. I enjoy living in Spain and revel in all the new things in my life. I am quite angry at myself for not finding Spain years before. (Although in self-defence, I did travel to many other countries in the meantime.) So am I over-reacting?

I am blessed, or cursed, with a curious mind. I like to discover new things. If I am honest, I would say I am almost obsessed with finding things out – as you might be able to tell from the contents of this blog. Just four years ago Spain was an unknown country to me, which probably says something about British education in the fifties and sixties. The only thing that we were taught back then was that England defeated the Spanish Armada. And that, in the light of research, was really a case of the victors, or rather the undefeated, putting their own simple spin on a much more complicated history. If the Spanish plans for invasion had worked, if the organisation had not been quite so awful, if the weather had been different, then I might have been brought up catholic and speaking Spanish and not have to wrestle with the conjugations and syntax of this strange tongue. And Spanish genes would have given the British female a mix of English rose with Spanish thorns. What a rare beauty that would be. Those same genes might also have given me the ability to sound the Spanish rr sound.

But I digress. I was talking about being curious. I cannot understand why someone should come to live in a country and then ignore everything around them. Are they not the slightest bit inquisitive about why the locals do what they do, what those strange sounds coming from their mouths mean? I couldn’t live like that.

But obviously some can.

The woman in story number one had chosen the Spanish coast as her home after retirement and under EU law she had the right to do that. But, it seemed to me, she had not chosen Spain. For her, her new home was just England with a cheaper and sunnier lifestyle. The young lady in the other tale was here on holiday and had a perfect right to enjoy what she wanted. But did either of them have the right to derogate the culture of their host country?

And do I, with my obsessive curiosity and love of so much about my new country (although the rose coloured spectacles fell away a long time ago – Spain is far from perfect), have the right to defend it; to be annoyed with those who denigrate it? I have been accused of being, at times, more Spanish than the Spanish.

I certainly defend English food that the Spanish claim is unfit for human consumption. I also defend Spanish food against the comments of visiting Brits, although I will never defend Spanish Tea!

Or should I just keep my opinions to myself?

Someone once said that if you can’t say something good, then shut up. And it was either Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln who remarked it was better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and prove it! (Perhaps I should heed that advice! But then you would have nothing to read!!)

What's your opinion? Were they rude or just ignorant - in the true sense of the word? Please comment below.


  1. It's not just those who live here who are unwilling to engage in the local doings, I'm reminded of a night I spent in the Gatwick Hilton after easyjet decided that flying me to Madrid would be too much hassle on the day we had agreed I'd fly. So I was given a room and a buffet ticket (a chicken dish in some sort of sauce... I think it was water). Whilst eating this I was sat at a table with 5 Spaniards and 4 other English folk. After answering 2 phone calls (one in Spanish and one in English) I was asked by an English couple if I lived in Madrid. I said yes and that they'd have a good time, it's cheap to eat out etc. The woman told me that she 'doesn't do foreign'. I tried to explain the simplicity of things like tortilla but to no avail. Some people just don't want to know anything. It tends to cloud judgement.

  2. I too had the delight of spending a week with someone from the Costa Brit-a (no, nothing to do with the water filters), who was very proud of the fact that after over a decade, couldn't speak more than 5 words of Spanish.
    Her argument was simply that she didn't need to. She lived in a little British enclave, where anyone who wasn't a Brit, spoke perfectly good English.
    She absolutely could not see the need. OK, to be honest, living where she did, there probably wasn't a "need". But what about a desire? What if she wanted to travel to another part of Spain? She seemed baffled that I was amazed by her lack of Spanish.
    Not speaking it, or trying to speak it, isn't technically in itself, rude.
    No, you know what? Actually it is.

  3. Oh dear, but sorry, this has sent me on a nostalgia trip. My first trip to a Greek island - Corfu, summer 1986.

    OK, yes, I'd been abroad a fair bit already so was quite adaptable but still. My boyfriend and I met a very sweet, but clearly rather naive, couple who were on their first ever trip out of the UK.

    Chatting to them in the bar on about their 4th night, we established that:

    1) They had brought 4 boxes of cornflakes with them and brought them to the breakfast room every day.
    2) They'd paid for full board but hadn't eaten in the restaurant as they couldn't see anything "English" on the menu.
    3)So far, they'd lived on toasted cheese sandwiches from the bar cos they knew what they were.
    4) They were going to ask the rep if they could move rooms cos their bathroom didn't have a shower curtain. We tried to explain the "wet room" to them, but to no avail.
    5) This was the clincher though - the girl really wanted some chips but insisted they weren't on the menu. I pointed to the beautifully translated "Potatoes, crumpled and fried in its own oil of olives", but she was having none of it. She insisted that they would taste "foreign".

    Sweet though they were, we gave up on them at this point, went back to our game of backgammon, plates of moussaka and got drunk on ouzo.

    They would have been horrified!

  4. Richard - remember that curiosity killed the cat.

    I have to admit that while I can read a small amount of Spanish, my ears totally fail to pick up spoken Spanish. I know that I need to learn more and practice more Spanish, as well as other languages. When we toured Europe for six weeks in 2006, I had eight different pocket dictionaries - one for each country we visited. When in Barcelona, I even picked up a Catalan-English pocket dictionary.

    The examples you discussed are not limited to Brits - as an American, I think we Americans are as bad or worse (remember "The Ugly American"?).

    Stay curious and inquisitive, and keep blogging - your posts are great!

  5. Thank you for the post. I probably would not reacted so calmly if I have heard gobbledygook.
    And that song is one of my favourites. I have seen Mercedes Sosa twice in the South Bank in London, and once in a comunist party politic meeting in 1986 in Santander. (I promise I ONLY went to hear Mercedes Sosa).

  6. And I think they are both rude and ignorant.

  7. ...and I also think they are both rude and ignorant in equal measure.

  8. I agree with hulananni - rude and ignorant! I'm actually not surprised that the Spanish present were not really offended. My husband (from Asturias) never gets offended over things like this. He wouldn't care in the least, but I would probably have been very upset! I'm an American who worked very hard to become fluent in Spanish. I am married to a Spanish man (he hates when I say 'Spaniard') so I had a real push to learn. How else could I communicate with my mother-in-law!? (I'm also delurking, btw, hi!)

    I can relate to those who have difficulty with the language, we are currently living in China and my Mandarin is deplorable. I do try, however, and I think that is what is important.

  9. Hi Richard,
    I think many times ignorance eclipses rudeness. At least, in your first example. People of ordinary kindness and grace can behave rudely because they don't have any idea what they are saying is out of line.
    I remember taking a group out to a wonderful restaurant that I had found in New Orleans. The chef was gaining national fame for his innovation and use of regional flavors. One of our dining companions was outraged that they did not serve steak and potatoes. He had to declare loudly and repeatedly his opinion that any decent restaurant must offer that choice on the menu. He felt it his duty to let other diners know the shoddy treatment they were receiving. It was only Southern gentility and hospitality that allowed him to leave without a cleaver in his skull.
    A great proportion of the population do not get a thrill from leaving their comfort zone. Through circumstance (or package trips) these people sometimes end up traveling, despite the fact that they have no native curiosity. They have no experience to base their actions on. They raise their voice in order to be understood.
    Benjamin Franklin, a great man of the world said "We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid."

  10. I just don't understand people who live or visit another country not being interested in its culture or way of life. That kind of "ghettos" are surrealist: you don't like your own country enough to live (and pay taxes) there, but you don't like Spain either to integrate with Spaniards and learn Spanish. When I lived in England I loved to mix with British, to eat English meals and even to adopt English schedules...

  11. Sorry for posting a second time, but I just want to affirm what others are saying. There are many Americans (including some of our elected leaders) who are even proud of the fact that they do not have a passport and have never left the country.

    I was saddened by my experience when living in Germany in the 1960s. I was one of the few American military members who learned German and studied German history and geography.

    When I visit Spain now, I believe that as a American I need to set an example and show Spaniards how much I appreciate their history, culture and language.

    Thanks for raising this important topic.

  12. I think story number one was very rude and perhaps her style was to cover up her own embarrassment that she can not or will not learn the local lingo. Story number two is typical tourists, when they go away they let their hair down and sometimes forget their environment.

  13. Hello,

    I read this post with interest and totally agree that if you live in a foreign country then you should learn the language even if it is to keep yourself sane, however I do feel the British get a very bad rap for this and they are an easy target to moan about.

    I am Scottish and live in Brixton in London and there are a huge amount of Portuguese, Chinese, Latin Americans, Afro Caribeans and Western Africans. The latter 2 do integrate and speak very good English but in my experience the Portuguese, Chinese and Latin Americans keep to themselves despite living here for 20 years or more. Shopping and eating in their own shops and sadly most of the women do not ever bother or feel the need to learn English. Even my butcher who is Portuguese does not speak very good English despite owning 3 businesses over here, most of his clientele is Portuguese so I guess you could say he has no need but has succeeded in making a good living for himself despite that. I do love living in a multi cultural area and I don't get annoyed at all by what these cultures and their ways bring to the area. I don't think it is fair to single out English speakers who choose not to integrate into a host community. It happens everywhere in the world.


  14. this is really interesting... haha and then some of these stories are so absurd, but not surprising at all. reminds me also of a few similar anecdotes that truly caused embarrassment in a guilty-by-association sort of way (in my case, american)

    however, we can't forget this certain truth of life: different strokes for different folks. i cant help but sympathize for the old lady! perhaps she's been living in some dreary corner of England where it once rained for 10 years straight or something, and now that she is finally retired, she just wants to relax and enjoy the magnificent sun!

  15. Hi Richard,
    No sé muy bien de que te sorprendes, esa es la actitud que los españoles hemos soportado de los extranjeros en general y de los anglosajones en particular durante siglos.
    Supongo que tiene que ver con que en general se nos considera primitivos y a medio domesticar, y a los prejuicios creados por la famosa leyenda negra que aun sigue muy extendida.
    Los raros no son ellos eres tú. (Ojala la rareza abundara mas).

  16. La verdad es que los españoles ya estamos acostumbrados a ese tipo de cosas.
    Los anglosajones suelen creer que el universo gira a su alrededor y menosprecian otras culturas.
    En el caso de los españoles, esa sensación de superioridad se basa en la leyenda negra (esos cuentos que os cuentan sobre españoles devoradores de niños y demás) que nos hace parecer atrasados incivilizados e indignos de confianza.
    No te sorprendas de su actitud no es rara, el raro eres tú, pena que la rareza no abunde.
    Un saludo.