a wandering woman writes

Saturday, September 01, 2007

When language and work style collide

I just thought I should ask.

Just ask.

It was hanging there, you see. A loose end. A roundabout sentence dangling mid-air, senseless, in this lyrical language I've learned to love.

I was working in my American working-way: direct, precise. Action oriented. Full of "who will do what and by when".

It all started when I noticed that some material a client and I had decided would be posted on the client's website after public release wasn't posted. My American side couldn't remember being told who had been assigned the job of posting it. My Spanish side longed for conversation, as she inevitably does mid-workday, so my naive typing finger wrote to ask.

All three of us had climbed directly into a castellano "who's on first".

Spanish has an oft-used passive voice, if you've yet to have the pleasure. A passive voice that is soft and subtle in literature. It's also annoying as hell in business.

"I was just wondering", I wrote to my client in Spanish. "How did we decide we'd post the new material on the site?"

"Well", came the calm and yes, lyrical reply, "it is supposed that it is made to arrive ("se hace llegar" ) to the programming team".

"But how does it get to the programmers?", I asked.

Within minutes Outlook was singing me the next verse: "It's made to arrive to the manager of the team, and she handles the responsibility of assigning the work."

"I know that", I replied, stepping every closer to the trip line, the eager net quivering above my head, anticipating a quick but gracefall fall. "But WHO makes it arrive? Doesn't someone have to prepare the text and send it to the manager?"

No reply.

That's when the net fell.

"Am I the one who's supposed to do it?", I typed. "That's all I want to know."

The reply was immediate.
"What a spectacular idea! YOU do it, cariño. I'll let everyone know. Do you need anything else?"

We're sure this language wasn't designed simply to trap unassuming English speakers, aren't we?

I have this vision of the rest of the project team gathered round a bar table, full glasses in hand............toasting (absent) asesora me.

Oh, well. At least I've found an advantage to having an American on the team. Must be nice. So precise, those Americans.



  • Ah, the lovely passive voice that isn't. The one that equals the "impersonal you" but which in English we take more personally. Unless "one reverts" to the more formal "one does this and that."

    But it has its good side, too: while one can use it to fob off responsibility, one can also use it to point something out to another person without making them feel as though they would ever do such a thing. Such as the time I commented to a friend that he could alleviate some of his mounting laundry pile by, er, wearing a sweater more than once. Just not on consecutive days. To which he replied, «Calla, mujer. Esto se hace, pero no se dice.» Heh. So neither one of us would ever be capable of that, because it would always go unspoken, and hence, unnoticed.

    By Anonymous Ortizzle, at 11:39 PM  

  • that was just too funny! ah, the passive voice... very useful, but annoying at time ;)

    By Anonymous Alexandra, at 1:18 AM  

  • LOL; Ortizzle. Yes, I do love (sincerely) the Spanish sense of "se hace pero no se dice" which applies to all kinds of things, doesn't it? And what I love most is that, yes, by saying just what your friend did, sí, se dice, with a wink. I do find the passive voice useful and comfortingly soft, especially when writing, but, oh, for those of us raised in entreprenueurial American companies...(where we'd be shot for the use of the impersonal"one" as well), it's a trap!

    Somehow this got me thinking -when I moved to Spain, I just wanted to live in Spanish but the most fun I have had doing that - the biggest stretch, that has brought the biggest laughs - has been working in Spanish. Work was such a fluent place for me and having both culture and language pulled out from under me has truly been a gas...

    Thanks for the comments, both of you! I know I've been AWOL; and I appreciate that you're always hanging close by...

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 12:13 PM  

  • Welcome back. Did you have a good hanker? I'm about to up sticks and settle in Andalucia, so I'll soon start to get a flavour of how it is for you.

    By Blogger Payasoru, at 10:51 PM  

  • Oh, that's exciting, payasoru! Congrats on the leap! Big city, small city, pueblo, coast, mountains?

    Was this a hankering of yours, then?

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 9:13 PM  

  • Just about the longest hanker of my life! Discovered the village of Frigiliana back in '83, and promised myself that one day I'd live there. Well now I'm going to.

    By Blogger Payasoru, at 11:11 PM  

  • Yes, very useful! Especially for things like: "Los papeles se han quedado en casa" instead of "Oops- I left them at home!"

    Good luck on the Camino. What lucky timing!

    By Blogger kate, at 12:05 PM  

  • All I can say is that I laughed my ass off when I read this. Can I say that at your blog? Because I did. Sooo perfect. Just wish I had been there with a time lapse camera setup to catch the slowly dawning realization in those baby blues. Would have been priceless...
    waka waka. LOL

    By Anonymous Laura Young, at 1:12 AM  

  • YEH Payasoru!! Those long but persistent hankerings are my favorites.
    Thanks Kate.
    And yeh, whatever I can do to brighten you days with a bit of hysterical laughter, Laura ;) I suspect the baby blues were a mile wide when it hit me...

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 9:28 AM  

  • (tsk tsk tsk) "Eso no se hace" became a running joke between a friend of mine and I after a run-in with a Salamanca hostal when we thought we were just being all kinds of polite and helpful guests. Used to drive me crazy, but now they've become words (and noises) to live by!

    I especially love the multiplicity of matices communicated by the tsk/shake combo.

    By Blogger Ned, at 9:33 PM  

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