Monday, January 21, 2008

Randomocity, Again

Randomocity. It's not a real word. Maybe I heard it once, in passing, overheard in the cafe culture that I work in. I'm not sure what it means, or even if I spelled it right. Perhaps I'm indulging in post-modernism if I use it as a sort of polymorphic way, letting people define it as they feel like it. A shapeless word without an anchor.

In ESL (english as a second language) classes, I often struggle to put meanings in words and idioms that are common in our culture in a way that would make sense to internationals visiting this country. And as soon as I do that, another American helping in the group, makes another contribution similiar to mine, but not quite the same. Or vice versa. We are not attempting to confuse people, but in the course of the conversation the complexities of a word are fully understood. And that it is grasped that American English is crazy. And ever-changing.

Four years ago, a Japanese friend asked me in what circumstances Americans use contractions instead of saying the words completely separated. I tried to explain it was more of a style issue than a proper usage issue. We Americans tend to be very casual in speaking and another way in writing. And even that has it's variations--for instance, style in writing a thesis or a research paper or a cover letter verses a personal letter to a friend or a blog. I know people who rarely use contractions and tend to have a stilted, formal way of speaking. But that's their personality and preference. And maybe their upbringing.

I tried to convey to my Japanese friend that he has to consider the diversity in America, that there is no one particular way to use a contraction in conversation. But using or not using contractions adds dimension to the tone you try to convey. A teacher, therefore, will set a tone of authority in her class if she informs the students that they "can not" speak until they raise their hand and wait for her to call on them. "Can not" emphasizes that the instructor has laid down a rule. Or, a friend informs another friend that they "will not" drink and drive, emphasizing the friend's resolve to put safety ahead of pleasure. Or a wife asking her husband won't he take care of the garbage please, the contraction softens the statement to her loved one's ear, making it sound less like a demand and more like a gentle request.

Since then, I've learned that there is a formal Japanese and an informal Japanese and very specific times and places that you use each of them. There is a code universally understood among them and if you violate it, then there is cause for someone to feel disrespected. Or depending on the situation, you made a gigantic mistake and you've disrespected yourself.
So my friend was in a rut in how to make a decision using various forms of American ways of speaking. He didn't want to offend by being too casual, so he always used the more formal tone to be safe. Which, as I think of it, was very considerate of him. It was a subtle way for him to show honor to his American friends, which unfortunately, few of us picked up or could have known enough to appreciate. Unless we asked. Perhaps, it would have been an insightful thing to have noticed it and asked my Japanese friend why he spoke so formally. And realize that he wasn't always so formal with everyone.

And discoveries like this is one of many reasons I love to make friends cross culturally.

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