Lost in Translation…

Cover of "Do I Look Fat in This"

Cover of Do I Look Fat in This

Many years ago, in one of my many professional incarnations, I taught English to foreign students.  Some found the English Language fairly easy to learn, others less so.  However one thing that always caused confusion was when I explained that often when an English speaker says something, they actually mean something totally different.  I don’t know how much this is an issue in other languages – my grasp of other languages is so embarrassingly bad that I can barely tussle with the literal meaning let along any subtext.

In English, as spoken by a Brit,  however, subtext and etiquette play a huge part in the language and failing to see the subtext is a minefield which many have accidentally wandered into.

Take the innocuous “You must come for dinner, let’s get a date in the diary” or “I’ll give you a call”.  Woe betide you should think that is what the person actually means.  Don’t make the mistake of fishing out your diary or worse still waiting by the phone for it to ring.  When we say these things what we actually mean is “my diary is full for the next six months” and “I have absolutely no intention of ringing you”. We’re not being rude, it’s just that it is much easier to be faux-polite and to exchange the required formalities than it is to say “Bye then, I’ll see you around” which is what we really mean.

The British are for ever saying “sorry” or “I’m sure it’s my fault”.  This is not because we think we are at fault; confusingly quite the opposite.  Saying “sorry” is an automatic response for us Brits.  “Sorry” in this context is not remotely intended as an apology but again is a form of politeness.  Probably the worst thing you could say in response would be “apology accepted” – be warned, there was no apology intended.  It’s just words.

This politeness is acutely apparent at the British dinner party.  When presented with flowers or a gift by a guest, the hostess will inevitably murmur “Oh you shouldn’t have…”.  This is another example of where what we say is actually the opposite of what we mean.  What your hostess actually means is “Yes you should have bought me something, I’ve been up since 6am cooking your bloody dinner and sweating blood, sweat and tears over Nigella and Jamie Oliver”.

A common mistake that non-British people make when meeting a Brit is in response to the oft-used question “How are you?” or “How are you doing?”.  This question is almost rhetorical in nature.  The person is not remotely interested in how you actually are, but courtesy and greeting formality demand the use of such a question.  The mistake commonly made is to reply with a lengthy account of your current medical status.  This is neither required or indeed desired.

Relationships are another linguistical minefield with some very clear rules.  If a woman asks “Do I look fat in this?” do not hesitate to consider your answer.  Any hesitation will be taken as doubt by the woman.  This question is a stock question which requires a stock answer for reassurance purposes only.  The woman is not actually interested in whether you actually think she does look fat in it, she just wants to hear you say “Of course not, darling”.  Whatever you do, do not try and give a fuller answer – for example, “not at all but I think the red dress looks better” – as this will only serve to antagonise the woman and result in the accusation being levelled at you, “You do think I’m fat, don’t you!”  Take the easy option, you are not required to answer with any more detail, in fact it is actively discouraged.

If you are out with a group of people and you hear someone describe another person as “having a heart of gold” or “such a lovely, kind person”, do not be fooled – this is subtext speak for that person being, how do I put it kindly, “no oil painting”.  In fact, we have a lot of expressions which thinly disguise the brutal truth – my personal favourite is “he/she is not the sharpest knife in the drawer” – sounds so much kinder than “thick as two short planks”.

There is one situation though where you can take what we say at face value.  If your girlfriend/partner/wife says to you, “I’m really sorry but I’ve got a headache” – she means it.  Yes, there is a subtext here, of course, and by all means offer her a paracetamol but don’t dispute it, otherwise the headache will inevitably get worse and recur more often.

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Unpaid Leave

English: Logo for the United States TV series ...

English: Logo for the United States TV series “The Office”. Français : Logo de la série télé “The Office” diffusée aux États-Unis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the first time in 9 years I am taking unpaid leave from my job.  I am going to Colombia to visit family and leaving my colleague, the husband (strictly speaking my underling as I am Chief Executive and he is my deputy with special responsibility for “financial services and support”) in charge.

Now without wishing to cast aspersions on my colleague’s abilities, I do have my reservations about leaving him to run the “office”.  I am not convinced that he really understands the full extent of his new responsibilities and what the day to day running of this extremely busy “office” entails.  Not only will he have to deal with the administrative nightmare of scheduling but he will also have to deal with three of my most difficult clients for a whole week.  These clients can be particularly demanding and do expect to have someone on call 24/7.  It is not unknown for them to call me at 3 am and expect me to perform a full laundering service or the like.

Of course, being such important clients, it is vital that my colleague and I manage a seamless handover of responsibilities and that these clients are virtually unaware of the temporary change in their client relationship manager. I have warned my colleague not to expect much praise or affirmation from these clients – indeed rather to expect numerous complaints and a regular and often harsh critique of services provided.

Unfortunately for my colleague, the “office” driver, chef and laundry assistant are also away the same week as me so he will have to perform their duties too.  I realise that he will feel this goes way beyond his job specification and I can only apologise for asking him to do the impossible and carry out my job responsibilities and that of three other “office” workers.

I am of course aware that I am asking a huge amount of him.  To this end, I have produced a manual which outlines all the responsibilities and the schedules of our three most important clients.  I have stressed the importance to him of ensuring that the schedules run like clock-work and that our clients will not tolerate lateness or a lack of preparedness.

I am very grateful to the large number of female colleagues in different “offices” who have offered their support in my absence and have provided a telephone tree of emergency numbers in case he should find it all too much. I am much comforted by the thought that there is a strong network of very capable women ready to leap into action if required.

I am very keen to let my colleague find his way on his own, prove himself to me. To this end, I would encourage my female friends in other “offices” to hold back unless strictly necessary.  Examples of situations which do not require intervention: one or more clients dressed in totally inappropriate, clashing-coloured clothing (to be expected), one or more clients arriving at least 20 minutes late for any appointment and one or more clients appearing in unexpected places at unexpected times.  An example of a situation which does require intervention would be if you see my colleague with two clients but not the third – in this situation it would be perfectly acceptable just to ask him where the other client is (just check – in case he has dropped one of the juggling balls).

So I am going to go off on Thursday and try very hard not to think about work for a week (of course I shall be available for nightly skypes with my three most important clients) and leave my job in the very capable hands of my colleague.  Hasta Pronto!

Political Rant

English: Helix pomatia, Helicidae, Burgundy Sn...

English: Helix pomatia, Helicidae, Burgundy Snail, Roman Snail, Edible Snail; Karlsruhe, Germany. Deutsch: Helix pomatia, Helicidae, Weinbergschnecke; Karlsruhe, Deutschland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“What do politicians actually do apart from talk a lot?” – so said one of my children the other day. It got me thinking (and unusually for me, thinking seriously).  When I was at university and in my twenties, I considered myself politically engaged and fairly well-informed.  Now? Well, at the moment, I feel about as politically engaged as the snail I am currently watching on my window ledge. Not to do snails down – for all I know this snail is actively involved in discussing the finer points of democracy with his fellow snails – but I doubt it.  So what has happened and am I the only one who feels like this?

I reckon I’m not. If I am totally honest I would struggle to name the members of the Cabinet at the moment and I’m not proud of that. I find myself switching off when political issues are on the news; I skim read newspaper articles.  I have totally lost any passion I had for politics. I do, of course, care deeply about the issues which affect the world I live in but I’m just not interested in the political angle.

What concerns me most about this is that if I feel like this at 40, then what about the generation below me? It seems to me that with the exception of a few, most are not just disinterested in politics but it goes further than that, they are deeply cynical about the motives of our politicians and their ability to effect real positive change in society. This generation can not even be bothered to vote – that is how little they care.  They feel far removed from the workings of Westminster; they do not trust our politicians; they do not believe in them or their motivations; they no longer respect them; they are totally “turned off” politics and the politicians who are elected to represent them.

I find this extremely worrying. It is crucial, I think, for politicians of today to find a way of re-engaging with young people.  Politicians need to find a way of galvanising the younger generation, of making them feel political passion again.  I have no idea how this can be done especially as scandal after scandal, misdemeanour after misdemeanour rocks our political system.  It is one thing to re-engage with someone like me who is suffering largely from political inertia (mixed in with a dose of cynicism) but quite another to re-engage with a generation who do not trust or believe in those who have been elected ostensibly to represent them.

I really feel that this is an issue that needs to be addressed with some urgency before another generation – that of my children – grows up disillusioned and cynical about our political system and those who inhabit it.   My child was right – stop the rhetoric and start doing something to inspire the next generation, to spark their interest in the political arena, to make them want to vote, to care who represents them and most of all to make them respect and trust again.

Political rant over. I realise that you may be thinking this is rather “serious” for my blog.  Fear not, I am sure I shall be able to lower the tone in my next piece.  However, sometimes things just need to be said and today I felt like saying them. Do you agree with me?  What do you think about this issue?

 

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Don't worry, be happy

Don’t worry, be happy (Photo credit: duncan)

If someone were to ask me what emotion, apart from love, has been a constant since you had children, I would be able to answer very quickly – worry. Of course, all the other emotions have been there to varying degrees at different times – joy, frustration, irritation, happiness – but one thing is always gnawing away – worry.  I’ll freely admit that I am one of life’s worriers – I can worry about things which wouldn’t even occur to most rational people as things you could even worry about. I am, as they say, a master at sweating the small stuff. That said, I am actually quite good in a crisis.  So by all means ask me about the big stuff but don’t ask me about the day-to-day stuff.  I am your classic over-thinker and this of course goes hand-in-hand with worry.  Although at least I can rationalise that if I am worrying over something so trivial, I really don’t have very much to worry about – if that makes sense.

Why am I wittering on about worry, you may well ask?  Well, I was thinking about the differences between child-rearing in the 60s/70s and now and as much as technology, media and scientific advances have opened up a whole new exciting world, they have also contributed to a general heightened sense of anxiety in society especially for parents.  For example, thanks to the internet, I can carry out almost every single daily activity – shopping, banking, bill-paying etc – without moving my backside from its best friend, the desk chair. However, the flip side of this is the information that is available to us at the click of a mouse. Say my child has a perfectly harmless rash, a hint of a sniffle and is a bit off his food – back in the day, our mothers would have assumed it was some non-specific virus, kept us off school for a day or two, fed us chicken soup and that staple, Calpol, and that would have been that – no worries. Nowadays, we google the symptoms (even though we know this is not a sensible course of action) and before we know it our child is suffering from some extremely rare flesh-eating virus that you can only pick up (except of course in our child’s case) from the depths of the South American jungle.  Cue – worry. Our mothers only had Dr Benjamin Spock for advice, we have every Tom, Dick and Harry claiming to be medical experts, diagnosing us and our children with things our parents never knew existed.

Every day the media is bombarding us with stories about this and that potential danger. We trust no-one.  We take no risks.  We are obsessed with “health and safety”.  Of course, awful things happen but awful things happened back in the day too.  It’s just that we are so well-informed now, over-informed some might say, and I’m not convinced this is a good or helpful thing.  To my mind, it is being so well-informed that has led to low level anxiety permeating society and nowhere is this more apparent than parenting.

Do you think our mothers worried endlessly about giving us fish fingers, spaghetti hoops and Angel Delight and what the long-term impact would be on our health.  No, they didn’t because they were none the wiser.  I’m not saying a diet that solely consists of the above is ideal nor am I saying before you all get concerned that this is what I feed my children (not every day, at least) but now everything we do or say is so wrapped up in worry and guilt about the long-term impact that it is easy to lose sight of what is really important – just trying to be a good parent who amongst all this media bombardment is still able to relax and enjoy being a parent.

Parents worry endlessly about whether their child is “normal”.  What is “normal”?  I don’t really know except I suspect that I am far from it – something which has been confirmed to me on many occasions by various members of the medical establishment. Our schools are constantly measuring and comparing our children to such an extent that it is easy to forget to embrace each child’s individuality and to accept that you really can’t be good at everything all of the time. Take me and sewing for example – useless is the only word to describe it and back in the day, I’m fairly sure that that is exactly how my teacher described it (this, of course, would never happen in today’s hypersensitive, politically correct environment) – so, I am needle-challenged or whatever. Does this bother me? Did this bother my mother?  Did she worry that perhaps this was a reflection of underdeveloped fine motor skills?  No, of course not, she was probably just annoyed that I got thrown out of the lessons for good after breaking the sewing machine three times in one lesson, before I had completed my very 80s Laura Ashley gathered skirt (the material for which she had bought). Take ballet for example, one of my younger sisters was a very talented dancer, I have two left feet.  Did my mother add my sewing ineptitude to my ballet ineptitude and decide I had real problems?  No, of course, not – that’s just me.  Nowadays, you could probably google those two things and come up with some condition – cue, worry. Before anyone accuses me of trivialising real issues, I am not doing this at all.  Of course there are many children with very genuine issues and concerns for their parents.  I am talking about non-issues, non-worries that we are so susceptible to now in our hyper-vigilant environment.  All too often these non-worries  are just muddying the waters of clear, rational thought and making it more and more difficult to ascertain what is a real issue and what is over-thinking, over-informing, over-speculating.

Of course our parents worried about lots of things – worry is part of the human condition – but I do think that there is a low level anxiety in society now that wasn’t there before and I worry (there I go again!) that this can only increase as we become more and more media and technology savvy.  What’s the answer?  I’ve no idea and I don’t have time to worry about it unduly – too many other things to worry about.  I’m just saying…

To ski or not to ski, that is the question?

Skier carving a turn off piste

Skier carving a turn off piste (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sorry for the radio silence this week but I had a knee operation on Monday and have been extremely busy doing absolutely nothing since except periodically inspecting and admiring my surgeon’s impressive attempts at giving me back a useful knee albeit one that looks as if it has had a drawn-out battle with a potato peeler.

As you know I was slightly uncomfortable about the impending forties and this is in part I think down to the three knee ops I have now had in the last year. Knee surgery is definitely one of those surgeries which reeks of age, wear and tear and threatening arthritis. Although, before you feel too sorry for me and the terrible toll the ageing process is taking on me, I should point out that I actually wrecked my knee last year whilst attempting the impossible – keeping up with my kids on the ski slopes. It should have been obvious really that I was going to struggle when their skis never deviated from pointing directly downhill whilst I took a more leisurely turning approach to my descent!). Aside from always playing catch-up, there is also the fact that when it comes to skiing, kids bounce when they fall and adults shatter.

I am probably insane but I am in fact going to a ski resort with the kids in half term. I use the words “ski resort” advisedly as “skiing” would not be an accurate description of the activities I shall be indulging in – drinking and eating in alpine bars and telling anyone who will listen that I would rather stick rusty pins in my eyes than put on skis again. I have now joined that group of people – non-skiers – who desperately hark on (lie?) about how wonderful ski resorts are if you are not skiing. Of course I’ll look the part – I didn’t invest in those now ever-so-slightly tight salopettes and après-ski boots (always known as moon boots to my generation) in order to consign them to the back of the wardrobe because of a mere skiing accident that has just mildly dominated the last year for me. After all skiing is only partly about actually skiing and partly about looking the part.

The writing was on the wall for me with skiing from very early on – the signs were all there if only I had taken heed. On my first ever skiing trip, in the final day race, I came a distinguished 45th…out of a field of 45. I knew then that I was no Franz Klammer. On a skiing trip in my late teens I was knocked out by a rogue button lift within my first 5 minutes on the slopes. On this occasion it wasn’t just my head that was dented but definitely my pride too – there is definitely nothing cool about being knocked sparko by an evil little button lift in front of a packed piste.

This humiliation led, not surprisingly, to a voluntary retirement from the slopes until my ill-fated trip last year. Surely nothing bad could happen this time – I’d done my skiing penance hadn’t I? Oh no, those pistes were ready for one last “taking the piste” which led to me taking the not very dignified blood wagon route down the mountain and the even less dignified request for payment (extortion?) at the bottom of the mountain or risk being unceremoniously dumped to find my own way to hospital.

It’s funny how things turn full circle – the one thing I remember from my first ever ski trip was my instructor imploring me to “bend ze knees” – ironically 30 years on as I sit on my sofa recuperating I am still desperately trying to do the same thing. All I can do is take heart from what one blood wagon attendant said to another, under the impression (largely accurate) that my French is elementary and therefore I would be unable to understand, roughly translated, he commented that “she has kind eyes”. Who knows maybe that wasn’t exactly what he said or meant but I’ll run with it – I’d choose kind eyes over beautiful knees any day!

Cold, white stuff…

Snow Cat

Snow Cat (Photo credit: clickclique)

Everybody knows that the weather is a national obsession for the British and no more is this true than when it snows.  Most of the UK is currently residing under a few inches of snow – yes, for my Canadian readers, I do mean a few inches not a few feet.  Now, I know for Canadians a few inches is laughable, not even worth mentioning, but for us, Brits, these couple of inches of cold, white stuff is dominating all news headlines pushing far more important events unfolding on the world stage into the realms of “And finally, in …..”.

Never before in my lifetime has snow being so widely and dramatically predicted, talked of, warned about (and indeed correctly forecasted which is unusual in this country where our weather forecasters are inclined to get it wrong more often than right).   With pinpoint accuracy we were told when the snow would start, how long it would last for, how much would settle etc.

If you live in one of those countries which are covered by a blanket of snow for months on end in the winter, you may well ask why such drama is necessary – after all it’s a little bit of snow.  Let me tell you the reason – we can’t cope with it, the country grinds to a halt.  Add to this the fact that all Brits love talking about the weather (and moaning about it ) and you’ve got the “perfect storm”.  The TV is full of endless news reports from around the country showing closed airports, closed schools, closed railway stations and empty supermarket shelves.  Do you know what?  We, Brits, love all this – weather drama!

In addition, it gives us a naturally reserved nation the opportunity to “all be in it together” – we start talking to people we don’t know (very un-British) in the streets, in the shops – “Isn’t it cold?  Do you think it’s going to snow?” or “apparently we’re expecting 10 inches of snow”.  There is nothing the Brits like more than a feeling of its “us v the rest of the world”.  Nothing galvanises us more – we are united!

Snow also brings the menfolk the opportunity to behave as children (although many don’t appear to need snow as an excuse for this).  Nothing demonstrates this more than snowball fights.  To me, snowball fights are nothing more than a legitimate excuse to regress to the age of about 8 and then pelt those you are not terribly fond of with large balls of ice and snow, all under the guise of “having fun”.  I have witnessed some pretty aggressive snowball fights over the last few days and it never fails to amaze me how entertaining men find these to be.  In my experience, most men are unable to be out in snow for any length of time without hurling it at someone – bizarre but I guess explicable by the fact that the snow gives a legitimacy to something which if it was done with any other material would end up in court.

So today I sit here at my computer, looking out at a white world, with one child whose school is shut (health & safety again) and the prospect of yet another afternoon of watching my kids hurling themselves down a slope, on what is essentially an overpriced plastic tray, trying to avoid the brambles at the bottom and failing.  I like snow but I am over this particular “sprinkling” – come on schools, please open and get on with it like every other country.