Sunday, 4 September 2005

Wow! Thanks!

Would you rather be insulted or patronized?

Some compliments are worse than insults.

I was talking to an acquaintance the other day: she's French too and has lived in the UK for 11 years, i.e. a b***** long time. For years she worked in the language department of a prestigious publishing house in Oxford; she's currently the managing editor of another publishing house in London. You'd think she wouldn't have to prove her credentials as an English speaker any more. Yet, she complains, every time she meets someone new the first thing they say to her is, “Your English is very good!” Then they ask when she's going back to France.

It drives her nuts.

I've lived in the UK for 26 years; before moving here permanently in 1979, I spent two whole years in the country (in 1970 and 1974), not counting long holidays in between. I also studied English at school and at university. I worked as a production editor in a London publishing house for five years. I've been a literary translator for 30 years. Yet, on first meeting me, even those who are aware of my background go, “Your English is very good!”

It drives me nuts.

In 1974, I worked as a dresser at the Aldwych Theatre, which was the London base of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In between costume changes I used to go to the Green Room to chat or read. I remember I was reading The Once and Future King, when a young stagehand I'd known for several years and who probably had never read a whole book in his life came up to me, looked over my shoulder and said, “Wow! You're reading an English book?!” I was speechless. I'd had long conversations with that young man: what language did he think we'd been speaking together? I felt insulted and patronized at the same time. The following day, I handed in my resignation and a few weeks later returned to France. I’d suddenly seen myself as others saw me.

If someone insults you, you can retaliate and insult them back. How do you react when you're being patronized?

Take this older person I know. She's a member of my partner's family; she wants to be friendly, but the last time I had a conversation with her she informed me that “The Jews are really clever, aren't they?” Hmm… “clever”. In what way are we “clever”? If we’re so “clever”, as someone said once, how come six million of us managed to get slaughtered so easily? She means “cunning”, “crafty”, “wily”. She’s being racist and she doesn’t know it. She thinks she’s being nice to me. Thanks, but I don’t need you to reassure me that the Jews are “okay people” – especially not in those terms.

A slap to all patronizing people out there!


  1. The Fall Preview Issue: Entertainment Weekly in 60 Seconds
    Here it is, the issue TV fans wait for: the fall TV preview issue! Lots of goodies inside, ... An online-only excerpt from an article about Lost , with a sneak peek at season 2.
    Hello, I have check out your blog - really it's make a good look. I will
    definitly going to bookmark it.
    herpes symptoms site/blog

  2. I am laughing because I have lived in the US all my life—I was born and raised here. And for a long time, people I would meet IN MY OWN HOMETOWN would say to me, "You speak great English! You don't even have an accent!"


  3. And adding a slap for spam commenters, LOL! Thanks, anonymous, for the link to your blog, which I'm sure is just fascinating.

  4. Anonymous, I don't expect anyone has ever said to you, "Your English is very good." LOL!

    T, you're kidding! What am I complaining about? What do you say to those people?

  5. A slap to all those ignorant fools! It is such a shame that you have to face it. I grew up in India as you may know and I used to get the same comment about speaking perfect English and not having an accent etc when I lived in the UK. I used to shrug and just think "you stupid and ignorant idiots"!

    I also want to tell you J that I have faced more patronizing remarks in the UK than anywhere else in the world! Must be a specialty there - considering most people speak with ridiculous accents these days. I grew up with the older style of spoken English and so where is the Queenie's English now? Dead, buried and in the East End or souf (south) of the river?
    There were some hysterical geographical remarks made in the US but not patronizing.

  6. I think you're right, N: shrugging and thinking, "you stupid and ignorant idiots" must be the right reaction.

    What you say about the English being more patronizing than others is really interesting. Someone should do a study.

  7. Bela: I say, "Thanks, so do you!"

  8. LOL! I think that's what I'll say from now on, T.

  9. Yes, I can relate. Last year I was teaching a section for a professor who asked me whether I would be competent enough to grade essays written in English. Mind you, I have beeing living in the States for 10 years. I earned my BA as well as my MA degrees from the top universities, and I am working on my Ph.D. at another top unversity. That deserves a big slap! I was so angry.

  10. That was a blatant insult, V; I would have been livid too. Slap!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.