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August 12, 2009

You're in America -- Speak American

4th_08 You’re in America – Speak American

By Elaine Viets

Readers have taken me to task for a scene in my latest Dead-End Job mystery, "Killer Cuts," some gently, others angrily.

I had no idea the scene was so controversial.

It’s where Miguel Angel, the Cuban hairstylist, gives his Cuban assistant, Carlos, instructions in Spanish in front of a customer.

Here’s the scene:KillerCuts

"Mrs. Crane grew increasingly irritated, twisting in her seat. Finally, she erupted angrily, ‘We’re in America. The least you can do is speak American.’

"Carlos looked hurt. Helen blushed for the woman’s boorish behavior. Why did rude people insist everyone ‘speak American’? Were they proud of knowing only one language?"

A Concerned Reader chided me:

"I am currently in the middle of ‘Killer Cuts,’ which I am enjoying immensely," she wrote. "However, I was disturbed by a vignette in which you describe a tourist from Wisconsin as behaving ‘boorishly’ when she objected to being excluded from her stylists' conversation.

"I'd like to point out that in terms of American etiquette (and Florida is, after all, still part of the United States) . . . "

Uh, excuse me, Concerned Reader. Many residents – and visitors – believe Florida is a state of mind and possibly another planet.

"It is the stylists who were being rude," Concerned Reader said. She quoted etiquette expert Peter Post, who answered a letter complaining that "a few people at my job tend to speak to certain colleagues in their ‘native’ language while in the presence of other co-workers. (I put ‘native’ in quotes because these individuals were born and raised in the United States and hold advanced degrees, and are fluent in both the language of their culture and that of their citizen country.)"

Mr. Post called the problem "vexing." (I love "vexing." So civilized.)

"Speaking in a language that others can't understand when you could be using an inclusive language is like whispering, and it's rude," Mr. Post said. "The issue is really one of consideration, of making the effort to understand how your behavior is affecting others . . ."

Back to my Concerned Reader. "The stylists in your book were being rude and exclusionary to the client," she writes, "which was followed up by more rudeness when the head stylist informed the client that ‘Spanish is the major language of the Americas.’ It is not yet the major language of Canada and the United States, so the fact that it is the major language of Mexico, Cuba and South America is really not pertinent to justify rudeness in the United States.

"The polite thing to do would have been to inform the client that the junior stylist was still developing his English and might need some instruction in Spanish, and then to translate such instruction for her. This would have given the stylist the information he needed while still being courteous to the client."

Concerned Reader is absolutely correct. My fictional stylist, a genius in the hair-bending profession, was plain rude.

But Miguel did say, "I did not want Carlos to make a mistake. But if you wish, I will speak English. Or Helen can translate for you."

The customer declined his offer and said, "I can’t wait to get back to Wisconsin, where people still speak English."

CubA Unlike the rude Spanish speaker in Mr. Post’s letter, Miguel Angel is Cuban born. English is not his native language, nor is it Carlos’s. When I researched this book, I saw that scene played again and again. Americans would snarl at Latinos, "You’re in America. Speak American." It seemed . . . well, rude.

Conservative Mark Krikorian even complained about the effort to pronounce Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s name correctly. He said emphasizing the last syllable (which is the proper Spanish pronunciation) is "unnatural in English and something we shouldn’t be going into."

My great-grandparents spoke German when they came to St. Louis in the 1880s. The city had four German newspapers then. My father understood German, but did not speak it. I picked up a few words, but was not allowed to learn German. When I was growing up, German was the language of the enemy. My family’s attitude was "You’re in America. Speak English."

Today, the melting pot is outdated. We are now a "bouquet of flowers" and each culture is appreciated, rather than blended in with the others.

Thank you, Concerned Reader. You took my funny mystery seriously. That is a real compliment. This bouquet is for you.Flower_3


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My grandmother was first generation in the U.S. from a European family . . . we all heard about the 'little bit Irish, little bit French, little bit English', etc. But in her last year, she began using German words and phrases. She had told me about the German newspapers and clubs that switched suddenly to English when we got into WW I, and it became dangerous to speak German here, but she never told us that she was among those who suddenly switched. We had no idea that she had grown up speaking German until she was about 15.
I have mixed feelings: one shouldn't be rude, if possible, when speaking in company, whether it is a question of language or of talking about a party others in the room are not invited to attend. But, to force people to change languages for fear of discrimination . . . not so much.
(P.S. Sorry I missed the discussion of favorite childhood books . . . I read so many of the ones y'all mentioned; was a nice trip down memory lane. William, I'm with you re: Atticus.)

The problem is,as Peter Post said, "vexing."
I do wish I could have learned German. And I'm sorry that the liberal Germans like my family left the country to escape the foolish wars. It was liberal Germans who kept St. Louis on the side of the North during the Civil War. Their good work has been forgotten in the Nazi horrors.
Elaine Viets


Let's all sing together, okay? I'm sure everyone around us will appreciate it.

One thing that cracks me up about being chided to "Speak American" - even in my wonderful city, there are local accents so thick that if you didn't grow up here, you'd have a hard time. The same is true in many American places. We may all be speaking American, but by no means is it the same language.

Interesting that you have a vignette in your book about an "ugly American," and then you get a note from a reader who turns out to be a proud ugly American showing just what it means to be one.

The "Ugly American" syndrome used to be something people would encounter when Americans traveled abroad, and I was careful not to substantiate that stereotype the few times I traveled. Now, ugly Americans are over here, too. Are we more worldly, or are they less?

Aw, thanks Kathy.

I feel that way a bit when I'm getting my nails done and they're speaking Korean to each other, and English to me. But I would never think to say speak American. I just agree that you shouldn't exclude people right in front of you from a conversation.

And Kathy, you're so right about the regional accents. My nephew was about 10 when his family moved from Syracuse to Tennessee, and he came home crying from his first day of school because he couldn't understand his teacher.

This *is* a vexing issue! I can see how various cultures should be preserved. (And the ability to speak more than one language is a wonderful gift.) Yet speaking in another language in front of a customer surely felt to the customer as if she was being the butt of a joke or snide remark. It works in the book if one character doesn't speak English, but the Emily Post in me says Miguel should have apologized--in advance--for excluding the customer from the conversation. Struck me that everybody was rude! But then, I'm a sensitive flower.

I took 5 years of French and can barely read a menu now. What a lost opportunity.

Happy birthday, Laura! And many, many more!

My daughter is a Spanish Immersion program in our public school where her entire school day is taught in Spanish (except for gym, music, and art). This starts in Kindergarten and will go through 5th grade and though they will add some instruction in English from about grades 3 through 5, it is expected that these children will be fluent by the time they get to 5th grade. We have mixed reactions when we tell people about it - some think it's great and others are very offended by the idea. We, obviously, think that being bilingual is a wonderful gift and, as I like to point out, just because someone is not speaking English doesn't mean they CAN'T speak English. When I lived in Texas I realized how many people are truly bilingual - fluent and comfortable speaking in English and Spanish. I like to think we are giving her an advantage for later in life - no matter what she wants to do in life knowing another language is bound to be a plus. Not to mention I like the idea of her understanding that there's more to the world than just our little corner.

I do have to say I love the word "vexing".

Happy Birthday, Laura. Hope nothing vexing happens to you today or any other time this year.
Elaine Viets

I thought the sounds of all those accents was how you "speak American." The Polish, Germans, Irish, Japanese, Spanish and other cultures are what made this country great.
Elaine Viets

"Bouquet of flowers" what a beautiful way to cover all the different colors and cultures of America. Melting Pot sounds kinda gross. As if everyone needs to become the same.

I live very near Dearborn, MI. My husband and I just signed up to learn Arabic at the community college. Just for fun.

I love the idea that kids start in kindergarden learning another language. It's a bonus to know more than one, not a bad thing.

Less being offended at everything, more excepting.

Great blog, Elaine.

It really hit home for me how undereducated we Americans are when we hosted a German exchange student, age 16. Vanessa had a lovely, almost-but-not-quite British accent to her English, one of FIVE languages she knew, including Latin. Another of the girls in the group was fluent in four languages, and knew two others, including her mother's native Catalan. All the rest of the German kids, 15 of them, could speak at least three, but generally four languages. It was embarrassing that we knew virtually no German, despite having mostly German heritage (and what little we knew they couldn't understand because our accents were atrocious).

Everyone in our family took French in high school, except my middle daughter, who took five years of Latin. She now knows a little Spanish after spending three months in South America last summer with her boyfriend, whose mother was born in Mexico but grew up in California. The Latin helped a lot.

When I went to Paris with five family members, two of whom took an average of four years of French, I was the one who had to do all the talking. Neither of them would open their mouths, so I muddled through with my rusty, 35-years-ago high school French. However, the French, at least, do appreciate when you try, and I've never had anyone be rude to me, despite my execrable attempts to parlez vous.

Spanish or Chinese. That's what I recommend young people study these days. My four-year old grandson will start learning Spanish one day a week next month. Their day care now has a dedicated program for language, and for music, which is another language, as far as I'm concerned.

Happy Birthday, Laura!!!!

Elaine, spot on, as usual....

I am embarrassed when I see how many people in South Florida escaped the horrible poverty of Haiti or the dictatorship of Cuba, and then successfully started new lives and learned a new language. My friend teaches at a school that has a lot of Haitians. One of her students studied by a street light in Haiti because his family had no electricity.
I am not sure I'd have their courage.
Elaine Viets

It reminds me of the old joke that goes like this:

What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual.

What do you call a person who can speak two languages? Bilingual.

What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.

Okay, even though I wished Laura her Happy Birthday yesterday (and yes, I even made her have cake with ice cream!)...here I go again..

Happy Birthday to You!
Happy Birthday to You!
Happy Birthday dear Laura,
Happy Birthday to You!

As for the language thing. Now, you gotta understand, I am just 2nd generation on my dad's side...Mexican. My grandmother sat at the border for months waiting for the govt to approve her sponsor when she was just a small child. Her parents (my great's) waited a year, and this was after my greatgrandfather had been shot by some of Pancho Villa's gang.

My great-grandparents sent my grandmother to a girls school that enforced the english language. In El Paso Texas. They preferred spanish in private, but out in public they would try their best to speak english even though they were surrounded by other mexicans.

My grandmother became a translator for the feds at White Sands, but wont speak of it due to confidentiality. Of course, she probably doesn't remember much of it (she doesn't even remember me), but that is besides the point. And my dad didn't speak spanish around the house when I was a child as he didn't want me to be teased for mixing languages or accents...although I do seem to have an accent.

I took spanish in school. For what I learned, I should have just visited my grandmother for a summer as at least I would have been fluent from speaking with all the friends there.

Ultimately, I think that english should be the language of preferance. However, I do know that it can be very difficult to learn another language...to, too, two.. there, their, they're... etc.

I bartered some massages from an American woman married to a Chinese man. She spoke Chinese and their child was bilingual. Once before our session started, she had to chide her son about something and she did so in Chinese.
I was grateful. I could remain the client, the child didn't have to have a strange adult understanding (and possibly having opinions about) the lecture, and the masseuse/mother could easily separate her jobs.

Happy birthday to Laura! May your day be wonderful and the rest of your year even better!

My parents grew up speaking French in Louisiana, which was around long before America was America. When she went to school, kids were physically punished (hands or knuckles rapped with a ruler) if they spoke French on the school grounds. The result? The next two generations did not learn their parents' home language, and Cajun French nearly disappeared. C'est dommage! And vexing.

Happy Birthday Laura!

Giving employees instructions in a language they understand is a key way to get the results you want. I say this after working someplace where Chinese doctoral students could easily teach advanced chemistry in English but "Please do the dishes" was greeted with the blank stare of 'what are you saying, me no understand.'

Yes it is rude to speak another language in front of someone in order to exclude them. It is also embarrassing to discover that the person being excluded knows said language. A good friend speaks Spanish in the various dialects for Mexico, Argentina, and Nicaragua (his Farsi isn't bad either)despite his red hair and St. Louis Irish roots.

Not that I am a fan of Jessie Jackson, but he preferred the Salad Bowl to the Melting Pot.

Oh, oh, oh, Alan, I have a family anecdote about speaking the language that the excluded person happens to know.

My wife's grandparents both came over from Ireland, and her father's side of the family is very Irish looking. In the '50's and '60's, one of my wife's uncles who was a Franciscan spent a decade as a missionary in the Amazon in Brazil. Naturally, he learned Portuguese. Years later, he was in Portugal at a hotel where he had a reservation. The desk clerk told him in English that they didn't have any rooms, and then commented to another clerk in Portuguese that he wasn't going to rent the room to some pig American, or something like that. My wife's uncle, who was otherwise a peaceful guy but was 6'4", maybe 350 and was wearing his collar, grabbed the clerk by the lapels and told him in Portuguese that he understood what he had said and give us our rooms or else. They got their rooms. [Cue the chuckles around the dinner table.]

So, you never know if the person you are excluding understands.

Okay, I mean, both of my wife's father's parents came over. She had two other grandparents, too.

Happy birthday, Laura!

Exclusion is one thing; dealing with a problem effectively is another. I can't see that as rude.

But it may be I'm not objective. Informal German lessons started when I was about 6. The classical music world is polyglot. We have Mandarin speakers, Tagalog speakers, Francophones and speakers of a wide variety of Indian dialects at my current workplace. Drawing pictures and teaching vocabulary falls to me.

Espanol and Mandarin for our grandkids, to be sure. Big honkin' bouquet!

Another joke: Contrary to popular belief, many American can speak a second language – English.

Laura, ''hoppy birdies, two ewes!" and many more!!
I loved that scene in the book, Elaine, because it was so real. Customer service must be vexing indeed (worse at the country club ;-) Early language classes make sense, as the young ones soak up languages so easily. There's something about the formation of the mouth at young ages, too. Later, it's hard to master new sounds.
PBS had a lovely series "Do You Speak American?" that celebrated all our different accents.

Soooo....yeah that describes me perfectly. The one who looks like she can't speak a word of Spanish or Portugese when I totally do. When you work in another country you learn how to communicate. Makes for fun times in Miami.
I do think ugly Americans are thee worst tourist ever! My mother's friends came to Argentina and bitched and moaned about the coffe not tasting like American coffe and how they couldn't get scrambled eggs. I said you certainly can if you know how to say scrambled eggs in Castillano. And I will tell you if I heard someone speaking English on a bus in Buenos Aires I went right up to them and said hello. When you are out of your country you do miss communicating in the language you were raised with.
I have no problem with people speaking Spanish to each other in front of me but I can understand the older folk getting upset and demanding anyone who lives in America should speak English.
Ask that person who was lucky enough to be born here if they can pass a citizenship exam in any language however.
Just saying.

Happy Birthday Laura!

J'mappelle Gaylin. That is what 3 years of french got me. French is required in Canadian highschool and is useless in real life, unless you travel. And Quebecois french is different that France french so doubly useless unless you are in Quebec. Here in BC it would be much more useful to have Cantonese, Mandarin, Hindi or Japanese.

My ex-husband's family was first generation German. The spoke it in front of me and I didn't care, gave me a break from the conversation. My ex was fluent in German - when he was drunk.

"My ex was fluent in German - when he was drunk."
That may be the best line of the day, Gaylin.
I was taught Spanish by a Cuban exile. My Midwestern Cuban accent makes even the politest Latin people giggle.

Elaine, you're no longer "Book Tart"! Congratulations on getting your own name back.

Happy birthday to Laura, and many happy returns of the day, with lots of good books to read.

When I was in Miami last month I met two people who were born there, yet identified themselves as "Cuban", and had very thick accents.

Elaine, this is a very interesting topic. I grew up in a Canadian household where my parents were bilingual..they both spoke French and English. My father came from England and was in a monastery and school where French nuns had escaped to England to teach school. My father had a Roman Catholic Mass book with Latin on one side of the pages and English on the other. I knelt at my bedside and said my nightly prayers in French and English. I attended an English elementary school and gradually spoke more English than French. My mother would tell me to get a tin Of "pois" translated peas to maintain my French. I excelled in French grammar and French authors in High School. Later I met my husband at the beginning of the Separatist movement in Canada. My husband's friends commented in French about how pretty I was etc. assuming I only spoke English. Of course I was flattered. I recently went to vacation in Paris and everyone I encountered spoke English. The Louvre tour guide was lovely and gracious. Language is a very strange and emotional thing. I guess it's all about inclusion. We don't want to be left out of the converstaion. We want to belong. I guess we should learn more languages and reach out. I hope it's not too late.

Elaine - my ex-husband was drunk a lot . . . German as a drunk language!

Marie, even accents are emotional issues. When I did radio, I took lessons in NY to lose my German accent, which was keeping me out of the biz. I felt like I had to abandon my beloved grandparents to speak properly. I consoled myself by thinking that they worked hard so I could succeed, and talking properly was part of that success.
PS: Karen, it depends on which computer I use how I'm signed in.

Thanks everyone for the birthday wishes. I'm blushing.

I love the description of language as an emotional thing. We just celebrated my mother's 85th birthday over the weekend. I still love how when she quotes anything her mother said to her, it comes out in a brogue.

My uncle had an oil company in Venezuela and spoke fluent Spanish with an Ozark accent.

Just as musical as you'd think it was.

Several years ago, this Missourian was sent to West Virginia to teach a computer class. As I was doing the set-up I needed the system password, not just a user password. When I asked the lead operator she said it was 'tom'. I typed in 'tom' and was rejected. I typed in 'Tom' and was rejected. I went for 'TOM' and was once again rejected.

"Kaye," says I, "This password isn't working, what was it again?"

"Tom," she replies, "Tee-ahh-emm-ee, tahm." she spells. Time.

Is this a great country or what.

Elaine, this is a very interesting topic. I makes me wonder what the future will hold in terms of language for us Americans. My ancestors were Swedes, which I spoke when I was three and subsequently forgot. I studied French all through grade school, high school and college. I lived in Japan and learned Japanese during that time. However, I'll tell you when I whip out what little Japanese I can remember, i most certainly shock the crap out of the Japanese people I meet, never suspecting an american like me to converse in their language.
I am now married a man who is part scandinavian, part arab, who speaks french fluently. But mostly, we speak the language of food in all the international languages.

And how does one pronounce Mark wtf***ever's last name?

I'm late to the party and I have enjoyed all of your comments. I am struggling to learn French because I want to and I think it is important to be able to visit another country and be able to at least make a rudimentary effort to speak the local language and I hope to be better than just rudimentary when I am a guest in another country.

That all said, good night nurse! It's a book of fiction not an etiquette book! It was part of the story and the color and detail of the characters! Your reader needs to remember she or he is not the language or manners police! Sorry for all the exclamation points. I couldn't help it I am so irritated that someone would have the effrontery to correct you, Elaine, and any of our delightful authors, on how you choose to depict your characters.

Hear, hear, Jodi.

As a good friend would say, some people would complain if they were hung with a new rope.

With you, Jodi, and cracked up by Karen. Great discussion. Thanks, Elaine!!

Speaking from a personal experience...I had a gift certificate to get my nails done as a present from my husband at a nail salon (most places the staff are Vietnamese). I usually don't get my nails done, but this was a treat from my husband for my first Mother's Day. I am full Vietnamese even though I may not look like it... people always think I'm of multiple ethnicity. I speak and can understand Vietnamese fluently. While getting my nails done, I can hear the girls doing nails talk to each other in vietnamese about customers in front of their faces and even bad mouth certain ones. I heard one even mention a man coming in getting a pedicare having "elephant feet". Comments such as that makes me feel very uncomfortable and upset...they are talking about customers who are paying them for a service they offer and visibly advertise on their store front for women and men!! They started talking about me in vietnamese as well..such as how they were going to try and get me to "add on" more services to increase the bill. They talked about it in vietnamese to each other not knowing I can understand the language. Naturally I was very upset. I started talking to them in Vietnamese (which shocked them) and that prompted the manager to come over and apologize. I and another girl who I did not know (she was already there at the spa chair next to me) walked out of there...the manager tried to apologize and even offer to give us comp services but I refuse to do business there. Now when my friends go get their nails done, they always ask me to come along. Ever since that experience I don't even have the desire to ever get my nails done again. Experiences like this is just so hurtful and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If I go somewhere for a service, it would be courteous to not speak with a fellow coworker in another language that the customer can't understand. It's hard for the customer to feel at ease if they think the discussion may be about them. This is my personal opinion only.

Wow, Mai. Good for you for standing up to them. That's exactly the kind of thing I was talking about in my post earlier. My boss had a similar experience at an Italian take-out place near our office.

Hi all,

As the person whose (private) e-mail to the author precipitated this conversation, I have read the comments with interest. I didn't find anything unexpected, but I'd like to respond to the few people who protested my (private) e-mail: I wasn't correcting the author, I was giving her feedback from the perspective of one reader. She didn't mind, in fact she responded very courteously and positively, even though she may not entirely agree with the point of view I expressed. It's all about civil discourse, which is not aided by making snide personal comments about anyone with whom you disagree.

And to Mai, and any others who have been the targets of rudeness arising out of language differences, my sympathies.


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