Monday, June 29, 2009

If you live in a country long enough, you begin to realise that apparent illogicalities and inconsistencies are really perfectly rational and consistent. By the rules of local custom and practice, I mean.

I repeated yesterday my explanation of why the Spanish can come across to foreigners as, on the one hand, rude but, on the other, kind and gracious. It all comes down to whether you rank as a friend or not. And an extension of this explains the bizarre fact that the 'rude' Spanish are the best in a world when it comes to apologising.

Take the (relatively frequent) example of someone who unwittingly bumps into you because they essentially have no spatial antennae. At this point, the physical contact is even more effective than a mere exchange of words in establishing the personal relationship which justifies gracious treatment. Which immediately comes in the form of an embarrassingly profuse apology.

And this logic also explains why someone who comes out of a shop and walks straight across you (instead of waiting a micro-second so they can walk behind you) invariably never says anything. Or even gives the impression of being aware of your existence. Simply put, you haven’t exchanged words or touched each other. So you’re not a 'friend' and there’s no personal relationship. Now, in theory at least, you yourself could establish the relationship which should lead to an apology by speaking to the perpetrator. But this is tricky. If you show any degree of anger – or even what our American cousins call ‘assertiveness’ - you will immediately be in the wrong and are likely to get the treatment once dished out to V S Naipaul in Madrid – “Go back to South America! We have no concept of personal space here.” If, however, you utter a mild expression of hurt – say, “Hommmbre!?” – then you might just get a apology. But it won’t be an effusive, gracious one because face has been lost and the giver is a little on the defensive. In short, you’ve rather forced yourself on him/her as an (aggrieved) friend. And this is not always taken well.

Another example of Spanish ‘difference’ explained itself to me last night, in the wifi café I was writing and drinking in. In many (most?) countries of the world, you’re not really welcome as a singleton who takes up a table for four. But here in Spain no waiter or waitress ever gives the impression either that you’re unwelcome in the first place or, an hour and just one drink later, have long outstayed your welcome. Could this be because tipping is rare in Spain and so the staff don’t rely on it? By occupying a table for four, you’re not denying anyone the money they’d get on a larger order. Plus, you’re less work than a larger group. So . . . same money, less work. No wonder no one objects. The owner might but would be foolish to show it; competition is tough.

I’ve now seen several examples of trucks parked at the new bus-stop down at the roundabout. In each case, they’ve had their hazard lights flickering away. In another example of Spanish custom and practice, this means they’re not technically there and so can’t be given the sort of fine the rest of us get on a monthly basis these days.

Finally . . . If any Spanish reader wants a fascinating explanation of the apparently insane illogicalities and inconsistencies of British society, then he or she could do worse than to get hold of a copy of the book on Englishness by Jane Fox which I cited a few months ago.


Keefieboy said...

Is that related to 'Watching The English' by Kate Fox, by any chance?

Colin said...

Yes, I believe so. I was lent it and couldn't recall the exact title. A search suggests it must be this one. Really worth a read. Even a purchase.