English And You: It Can Be Yes!

I already know this probably wasn’t a big deal but I’ll tell the whole dumb story anyway.

I speak fluent Spanish. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good, so what.

Imagine it’s the nighttime and there’s a room with people in it. In English, you’d say “good evening” when you enter the room and “good night” when you exit. (Okay fine, you’d really just say “hey,” and then “laterz, jerks.”) In Spanish, you’d say “buenas noches” (“good night”) both when you enter AND exit the room. This subtlety gets lost in a direct Spanish-to-English translation.

Sometimes I work late enough at my office that I’m there when the janitor comes around to empty the trash. Our janitor happens to be a guy from El Salvador who is still learning English. We chatted briefly once, he seems like a cool guy. In the past, as he’s come in to get my trash can, he’s said “good night” to me as a greeting.

Last week I was working late and I heard the janitor coming. So, rather than preparing to give a long, unsolicited lesson on the nuances of Spanish-to-English translations of common colloquial greetings to someone I don’t know who probably just wants to finish whatever he’s doing and then go home just as much as I do, I figure I’ll just go with the flow and say “good night” back and smile and be all friendly and pleasant.

(And yes, I’ve now realized that, instead of saying “good night,” what I should say is “good evening,” or even something more common like “hey,” [or “how’s it hangin’?” or “hey daddy-o, what’s the action?”]; hearing the nuances of a language is one of the best ways to pick up on them.)

So anyway, I hear him getting closer, and I turn my chair to face the door right as he’s entering.

“Hi.” He says.

Suddenly I see it’s not the same guy. But it’s already too late. The words are coming out of my mouth.

“Hi. Good night.” I say with a smile. Then I turn and go back to what I was doing.

I’m 92% sure this was an American English-speaking guy.  So, when I said what I said the way that I did, I wonder if it sounded disrespectful/dismissive.  I bet it sounded like this: “Let’s get this over with.  Hi.  Now get my trash and get the F out.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to him after that, or if anyone even needed to say anything.  “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were from El Salvador” doesn’t seem to be a long enough explanation.

So let’s just drop it.  I’m sure I’ll be working late again within a month, so I’ll probably see him again.  I’ll buy him a Hallmark card from the “Sorry I Used A Farewell As A Greeting A Few Weeks Ago” section.  Or maybe a bunch of cupcakes with letters on them, arranged to spell that out.  Then we’ll totally be BFF AEAE.



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