Friday, March 06, 2009

Expat eavesdropping

I promise – the above isn’t something I make a habit of.

It’s an odd thing. Many English-speakers when addressing people locally will assume that the locals must speak English, but when conversing amongst themselves as a tourist or expat group at a table, their assumption will change totally. Suddenly they think nobody can understand a word they’re saying.

In fact, apart from when one is well off the beaten track, this is a dangerous assumption to make. In many European countries such as most of those in Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, and the Dutch speaking parts of Belgium, a large number of professional or commercial people have a good grasp of English. Though perhaps to a lesser extent, the same also applies in much of Eastern Europe, many parts of Spain, Portugal, Italy, The Balkans and Greece.

Even in that great bastion of resistance France, many people under the age of around 30 or 35 now have an understanding of some basic English and are fairly keen to try it out – much to the disgust of the older generations who of course contemptuously blame this on all on McDonald’s and the “Parlez Anglais” infection their youngsters have picked up from them.

The point in this, whether in Europe or further afield, walking into a public place and starting to have confidential discussion based on the assumption your conversation is private is, well, very possibly risky!

I’ve had many experiences of being assumed to be local and therefore completely ignored, as English-speaking expats or tourists have started to sound off. In one case a group of six English-speaking people were unfavourably comparing a local beer to their good British Carlsberg – something I found hilarious as I struggled desperately to keep an impassive face.

In another case a group of Americans were fairly robustly and loudly rubbishing the local shops compared to those back home in a place I had never heard of, and I have a moderately good knowledge of USA geography.

Sometimes though it has been more poignant such as the elderly couple on a table next to me chatting away about the memories of their last visit many, many years ago, and their speculation as to whether they’d ever get the chance to come back again given their age.

Once a young couple on the next table also decided to start to share some fairly explicit intimacies with each on the risky assumption that nobody around could understand them. Feeling very uncomfortable with my entirely unintentional ‘eavesdropping’, I quickly finished and moved off.

Though at times amusing, on the whole I really don’t like this phenomenon associated with being mistaken for a local. I respect people’s privacy and I am never comfortable being forced against my will to eavesdrop. I just wish people would not assume that everyone around them is either deaf or entirely ignorant of the English language!

Yet as I said at the outset, sometimes these assumptions can work the other way.

I happened to be walking along in the street one day when an estate car pulled up. A woman got out and said in rapid native English

“Hello, I wonder if you can help? I have a wheelbarrow in the back with a punctured tyre, do you know where I can get it repaired?”

To say I was surprised would be an understatement but even so, I told her of a local garage I knew that may be able to help. She replied “Oh thanks very much” then got into her car and drove off.

It was only as she drove off that I wondered just how she’d picked me out as someone who would understand her. Did I have a sign on my back saying “ENGLISH SPEAKER - FEEL FREE TO ASK”? Had she just assumed that any Tom Dick or Harry she’d ask would be able to speak English and understand words such as ‘wheelbarrow’ and ‘puncture’?

I don’t know, but I wish now I’d had the presence of mind to ask her and to enquire what on earth she was doing in the town centre with a wheelbarrow in her car.

I suspect I’ll never know, unless one day in a local café I overhear a woman explaining to all and sundry how a ‘local’ she’d stopped at random spoke excellent English and was able to help with her wheelbarrow crisis!

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