Archive for Tag: polite speech

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How Do You . . . What?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

And then there was Mustafa, my marvelous, sweet, gentle giant of a student. I nicknamed him “Mustafa Mountain.” He was a heavy-set young man in his mid-twenties who towered over me so much that I actually had to look up whenever talking to him. Mustafa had a way of not easily connecting how English works with his own thought processes, but he did a lot to show me how English can sometimes be so illogical that I think it amazing anyone can learn it well.

This is what happened the first day I met Mustafa in my low intermediate-level class at the university:

“How do you do?” I said as I stretched out my hand to shake his.
“How do I do what?” Mustafa replied.
“No, no. This is a greeting: ‘How do you do?’”
“How do I do what?”
“What’s your name?”
“Mustafa Bakhtiari. You are my new teacher, Mr. Firsten?”
“Yes, that’s right. How do you do, Mustafa?”
“Why you keep ask me how I do . . . How I do what??”
“It’s like saying ‘How are you?’ Mustafa. We say it the first time we meet somebody in a formal situation.”
“Oh, okay. I think I understand,” Mustafa said with a big smile of relief spreading across his face.
“So, how do you do?” I confidently reiterated.
“Very well, thank you,” came the unwanted response.
“No, you’re not supposed to say that in the answer, Mustafa.”
“No? Oh, so what I say?”
“How do you do?”
“Huh?” Mustafa said with the saddest look of confusion I’d ever seen on a student’s face. I closed my eyes momentarily, realizing what a dumb thing I had just done, inadvertently setting the scene for total confusion ― and I knew it.
“You are asking me that question again,” Mustafa said slowly with some consternation in his voice.
“Listen, Mustafa. When you meet somebody for the first time and the situation is formal, you say, ‘How do you do?’ Then the other person says, ‘How do you do?’ too.”
“You ask question and he ask same question. Nobody answer question.”
“Yes, that’s right. Now you’ve got it!”
“I got what?”
“Never mind. Let’s try it again, okay?”
“Okay.”
“How do you do?”
“How do you do, too?”
“No! You don’t say, ‘How do you do, too?’ You just repeat, ‘How do you do?’!”
“Please. I am trying to learn English. Not easy!”
“I know that, Mustafa. I say, ‘How do you do?’ and you just repeat ‘How do you do?’ and nobody answers that question. You just shake hands and smile at each other, okay? And then you can continue the conversation by asking each other’s names, career interests ― whatever. Do you understand now?”
“I think yes, but not sure,” poor Mustafa replied, looking quite insecure at the moment.
“Okay, let’s try it one more time,” I said, feeling this was it. It was either now or never. Taking a deep breath, I said, “How do you do?”
“How do you do?” was Mustafa’s response. I was ecstatic! We shook hands on cue and everything seemed right with the world.
“My name is Richard Firsten.”
“I am Mustafa Bakhtiari.”
“What do you do, Mr. Bakhtiari?”
“What do you do, Mr. Firsten?”
“You didn’t answer my question, Mustafa. You’re supposed to answer my question to be polite.”
“You say I must repeat question. I repeat question! ‘How do you do? How do you do? What do you do? What do you do?’”
“But that’s only for ‘How do you do?’ Mustafa, not ‘What do you do?’ You can answer that question!” I could feel my blood pressure rising. The word stroke popped into my mind. “Let’s try that last part again, Mustafa. All right?”
‘Sure,” he said looking down at the floor and grumbling a little. Another deep breath. “My name is Richard Firsten.”
“I am Mustafa Bakhtiari.”
“Nice to meet you,” I adlibbed.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Mustafa replied, feeling comfortable with a sentence he’d learned in his elementary ESOL classes.
“What do you do, Mr. Bakhtiari?” I went on.
“What do I do when?”
I just stared at him. I felt a little numb and kept staring. Mustafa had succeeded in sucking all the energy right out of me. I didn’t have the strength to answer his question. I knew very well where it would lead us. But I was his teacher. I had an obligation to answer his question, didn’t I?
“No, no, Mustafa. That’s not what it means.”
“That’s not what it mean? Why you ask me that if it not mean that?” I could see the frustration building up in him. It reminded me of magma rising up a lava tube in a volcano, getting ready to blow its cork and erupt.
What do you do? means ‘What’s your job or profession?’ So that’s what you should answer.”
“I don’t have job. I am student! You know I am student. All you do is ask questions they don’t mean what you ask. And you ask things you know I am not. I go home now. Maybe I see you tomorrow ― maybe!”

And with that, Mustafa turned around on his heels and walked despondently out of my classroom. I felt awful, as if somehow I’d let him down, even though I knew I hadn’t. But he did come back the next day, and he stayed in my class a whole semester, and learned a lot of English.

The last I heard, Mustafa lives in Los Angeles. We kept in touch for some years, but that didn’t last, unfortunately. He once told me that now, when somebody asks him, “What do you do?” he says, “I’m a CPA.” and always smiles as he thinks back to that crazy day in Mr. Firsten’s ESOL class in Miami.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Whenever I’ve taught an Intro to Linguistics course, one of the things I’ve discussed with my students is the fact that you can’t separate language from culture, that a language is an integral part of the culture of the people who speak it, and that it reflects that culture. In other words, you can’t learn a language in a vacuum.

Which brings me to the topic of euphemisms. Nothing is more telling about a culture than the euphemisms that culture has come up with in its language. Of course, this phenomenon can go a long way to driving ESOL and EFL students nuts. First, they’ve got the arduous task of trying to learn several terms for the same thing, and then they’ve got the daunting problem of learning when some of these terms are appropriate to use and when they aren’t. And, if all of that isn’t tough enough, they’ve got to learn which are considered nice and which are considered nasty. This is some job!

I suppose we all have out favorite euphemisms or favorite categories in which we can find lots of euphemisms to have fun with. I know I certainly do! Two categories that have always been nearest and dearest to my heart are the bathroom (itself a euphemism), including items related to it, and obesity. I like to focus, however, on the nice euphemisms, not the nasty ones.

English speakers have a “thing” about the bathroom. Americans, for example, just love their bathrooms. They beautify them with ceramic tile on the walls as well as on the floors. They install the nicest sinks and faucets and bath tubs or shower stalls. They go all out. And they make these cherished rooms sweet smelling so that they and their guests will walk in, inhale, and sigh with approval as they exhale. But don’t you dare call it what it is, the toilet. No, no! We can’t be so direct and low class about a room where such goings-on occur that we even find this topic difficult to discuss with a doctor, if need be. So English has come up with a bounty of euphemisms for that room which you go to “when nature calls” (also a euphemism): the bathroom, the gents’, the head, the john, the ladies’, the ladies’ room, the lavatory, the little boys’ room, the little girls’ room, the loo, the men’s room, the powder room, the privy, the restroom, the WC (water closet). And, of course, for those in less modern settings, the latrine and the ever-popular outhouse.

And what do we say when someone’s in the middle of doing his business in this famous room? “He’s indisposed.” “She’s on the throne.” Don’t you just love it? I remember the first time I heard my plumber refer to the toilet as “the commode.” How nice! How delicate a term! It’s just as delicate as the term that television advertisers had to come up with when they finally crossed the barrier and were able to hawk bathroom items in their commercials. They couldn’t call it toilet paper. Ugh! How crass! So now we watch commercials for “bathroom tissue.” It just rolls off the tongue (no pun intended): “bathroom tissue.”

Here’s a cute story about the word restroom. One of my students told me this tale about when he first arrived in the US. There he was in his first American airport after a very, very long flight during which he had had trouble relaxing and trying to sleep. He picked up his bags and then noticed a sign that said “Restrooms.” “How wonderful!” he thought to himself. “Americans think of everything! They even have a place where tired passengers can rest before they continue their travels.” So he went over to the one marked “men,” went in, and you can imagine the shock on his face as he realized it wasn’t exactly a place to “rest.” That was his introduction to English euphemisms!

Obesity, as I said, is my other favorite category. I just love the euphemisms we’ve created to protect the feelings of fat people. They’re fat. I’m fat. Lots of Americans are just plain fat. But we’ve got to be psychologically protected from that unpleasant reality, so people who want to be polite and sensitive to our feelings have come up with the following terms, which can even be designated as unisex, male, and female terms. Unisex: big, big boned, corpulent, heavy, heavyset, large, overweight, plump; female: buxom, full figured, Rubenesque, voluptuous, zaftig; male: husky, portly, stout. (I think I’ll be “big boned” today. Yeah, I like that: “big boned.”)

Euphemisms do provide a very important service for a language. They reflect how important speakers of a language consider one topic or another, and show us how those speakers deal with or don’t deal with that topic in their culture. The subject of euphemisms is almost inexhaustible, so I’ll have lots more to say about them at another time.

How about you? Do you have any favorite euphemisms, or are there any that you scoff at? I’d like to know what they are, so drop me a line, okay?