August 15, 2007

When We Don't Speak The Same Language

Let me run a situation by you.

You are having lunch with a group of friends. Now, you do not speak nor understand the dialect that they do (given that you're of a different race as well), but in general, conversations are in English, so it is not that big a deal if they revert to their dialect once in a while. A friend of a friend joins the group for lunch, and everyone starts jabbering away in the language which you do not understand. This goes on for over 30 minutes.

What would you do? How would you feel?

Would it piss you off? Or would you just take it in stride and again, think, no biggie?

I was in such a situation today. No, the person in question was not me, but a good friend of mine. The rest didn't feel the tension, but I did (glass-cutting *shudder*). He was really quiet, and only admitted he was really angry when the lunch was over.

I know the feeling. And if I were in his shoes, I'd be annoyed, at the very people who knew I couldn't understand what was spoken and yet it was going on and on.

North or South

The episode brought me back to the days when I was a student in the UK. A lot of my friends were either medical students or doctors (we met at the local Christian Fellowship). Okay, I don't know what it is about the medics, but they tend to talk a lot about their work when they were together. They did not even have to be working in the same hospital; once they were together, e.g. having a meal together, they'd talk about their work. Out comes the medical jargon, etc. And we engineering students would feel absolutely out-of-place in their midst. I felt stupid and inferior to them.

In time, some of them became good friends of mine. I'm even getting married to one. I've learned to take it in stride, and even tease them when they begin their medical talk. But what happens when it's with people whom you don't know? You can't just interrupt them in the middle of their conversation and request that they speak of something more general. That's just rude, isn't it? Still, is it really too much to expect a bit of courtesy? Especially if they already know you're not 'one of them'.

Anyways, back to my friend. What happened today have annoyed him to the point where he may not want to join us for lunch in future. I really hope that does not happen.

What would you do in situations like this?

PS: To my medic friends (and all you medical ... people), no offense meant; it really isn't anything personal. It would be nice if you could talk about anything other than work. If not, hmm ... you people need a life! :p


Jemima said...

LOL.. I'm so very glad that we are speaking the same language, my friend. ;)

ParisB said...

I think speaking different jargon is quite different from speaking in a different dialect/language knowing that the third party does not understand. I've been put in the shoes of your friend and what I do is I leave. Its too stressful sitting there like a lemon. Glad you picked up on it though - maybe you could tell the rest how uncomfortable your friend was which might make them more aware the next time he decides to join you :)

Timodee said...

To me, it'd depend on the circumstances. If I'm in a position whereby I'm not understanding what's being talked about, I'll either just try to strike up another conversation (with a smaller audience) or if I'm not particularly interested in socialising just sit there and listen to people yap. I don't think the medical people are particularly more 'interested' in their work and bring that to the conversation, but we don't really get to ventilate as much as nursing counterparts etc because we're more of a minority in that respect. Bottling it up or not engaging in conversations is certainly not an ideal way to cope.

Adino said...

When I first started... everyone here speaks Mandarin. At first I was bored, then irritated, then I just tuned out. But amazingly... after a few years I managed to pick up Mandarin. Now can speak already hehe....

zewt said...

dont think we can run away from it... it's like a chronic disease... be it the dialect conversation or the topic of conversation. put it this way, when you are amongst your colleagues, you will also be talking about your work despite the presence of a non-colleague.

Tine said...

Jemima: Hehehe, me too!

Paris: You'd be surprised at how difficult and uncomfortable it feels to be in the midst of people who speak very different topics of conversation than you on the same table. I do it with the Japs; I can't understand a word they say, and yet I don't feel uncomfortable. It's difficult when you can understand what they're saying, but you can't join in at all.

Unfortunately for my friend, he couldn't leave the table, as we went out to eat, and he depended on us to bring him back.

Tim: It's great if you do make the other person feel comfortable despite the difficult conversation. Unfortunately, not many do, and the other person's always left out.

Adino: Hehe, that's great, a bane turned into a boon :p

Zewt: You'd be surprised at how things are with us. It's so rare that we do talk about work when we're out. The most we do would be to gossip about people at work, but not the work itself. I have colleagues who talk about computer gaming and sports when they're away from the office to other non-colleagues; thus everyone has a good time.

No, we can't run away from it. But we can try to make a difference by not leaving anybody out of the conversation, lest he/she's there sitting like, as Paris puts it, a lemon :P

bc said...

I am living with a bunch of ppl (my housemates) that speaks a totally diferent chinese dialect, something we malaysian not used to. So imagine hearing it day in day out... although they will speak mandarin or cantonese to me, but at times among themselves they will fall back to their own dialect. This few days, as their families are visiting, so the main conversation is now conducted in that dialect. I have learnt to understand 30%. Good for me ya... but then again... the situation is difficult, I will try to tune my ears to catch some phrase so at least i know where the conversation is heading to. Although many times i tune it out...

Anonymous said...


It annoyed me endlessly when i first started working in penang. i speak NO hokkien, NO mandarin but thanks to astro, a lot of them speak cantonese. in fact, the standing joke is that our department could jolly well be a non-penang department with the amount of cantonese spoken!

Thankfully for me, my colleagues were very thoughtful. And, of course, having a thick skin helps. I'd butt in in the middle of a conversation and tug someone's shirt sleeves,"TRANSLATE PLEASE!"

That's how i picked up on hokkien and i can now understand enough of it and hey, i can even tell my best friend to,"eh, lu kee see lah!" BWAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHHA :)

tihtahpah said...

oh geez, i know what you mean. also people who talk amongst themselves in hukkien etc when they very well kknow u dont understand it. i think the key is to be tactful. topics u discuss or conversations should be universally agreeable.

Kleio the Muse said...

Another great topic from Tine ;)

For me, it really depends on my mood at that period of time. But the most I'll usually do is just keep my annoyance to myself. If the conversation's boring me out no
prob! Cos' I'll just spaced out into my own trains of thoughts to keep myself entertained *chuckle*.

Sometimes given the right mood, I'll try to strike up another conversation with whom ever interested. At times, I would try to steer the conversation away from the topic that I am not familiar with by introducing another more engaging one :P

endroo G said...

Sometime I felt a bit kesian to my indian colleagues that whenever we're in our departmental weekly meeting, the majority even the managers will speak in Cantonese while the 4 Indian colleagues just sit there looking. Luckily one of our managers is an Indian... so one to one discussion they'll speak cantonese while announcements will be in english.

I know its odd but I cannot do anything.

littlepolaris said...

Ooops... u know sometimes we just can't help it bcos medical terms are like abc thing in out life and we have to use it everyday. So sometimes, though not sengaja hor... medical terms just come out from my mouth when talking to friends. =(

Tine said...

I should have mentioned that my friend's an Indian, so speaking in different dialects isn't going to help him much.

BC: Many a time, when that happens, I'll most likely tune out. Whether it's speaking in different languages, dialects or topics. Hence the dreamy look on my face :p

Geekchic: True true, I do agree that having a thick skin helps. If it's amongst my friends, oh yeah, they'll hear "OI TRANSLATE!!" from me to no end. Other than that, I'll probably just keep quiet.

Tihtahpah: I totally agree. I think it's only courtesy to keep the conversation to something a little more general. Or just non-work related.

Kleio: Aww you're making me blush :p

Hehehe yeah I try that too. Steer the conversation away as much as I can, and hopefully not sounding like a conversation hog :p

Endroo g: You've just hit the nail on the head, for my friend's an Indian. I don't understand why people would speak in Chinese to each other when they clearly know an Indian (or Malay, or any non-Chinese) is present. Tskt sk tsk.

Little Polaris: Ahhh, we finally hear from another medic! :p Yeah, I know, many a time, tidak sengaja one. Not that I'm blaming you lot lar; give yourselves a break from the work lor ;)

pelf said...

This reminds me of my own "group" i which there are a doctor and a dentist (the docs, we call). They will talk about bones and gingivitis and what-have-yous without considering that there are at least 8 other people who won't have an idea what they're talking about.

So when that happens, I will take revenge. I will start a conversation with the remaining people, on a topic that we can all chip in. And eventually, the 2 docs will join our conversation.

I'm not being mean doing that, but what to do? My friends don't learn from their lessons! Plus I'm popular for being quick with my tongue :)

Tine said...

Pelf: Hahaha, OMG, that's exactly what we engineering students did to the medics. Well, not general topics, but we'd pretend to be really engrossed in talking about what we learnt, electronics stuff, and it would drive the medics crazy. Then we'd say "if you can do it, we also can do it" :p