Impolite Conversation is a place where we can talk about the things we were told not to discuss in polite company - politics, sex, spirituality & religion and money - as well as science, culture, personal development and more. Our content is not all risqué or even rude: When we use the word "Impolite", we're talking about an attitude - one of not blindly following conventions or authority, especailly when they divide (or even oppress) us. Are you Impolite? Find out more about us here and join or community here

Unintentionally Impolite Conversations

Our Polish Londoner columnist on how cultural differences can lead to unintentional rude words.

 

Why on Earth would anyone choose to get involved in impolite conversations? You might want to gain attention or to provoke; you may not like someone, you may be introducing a more sophisticated hidden agenda, or just be doing it for some sort of twisted fun. Or maybe, like me, you’re just one of the many who lack the self-control to avoid speaking their minds.

 

My late parents brought me up to be a polite and quite well educated young man and I’ve always thought of myself as one. However, as time has sadly shown me, this has not yet been enough to lead a very successful life, either professionally or personally. "Polite" for me has become a synonym of weak, and "quite well educated" hasn’t filled all the gaps. (You could say "holes" not "gaps" but, hey, who are you to judge? ;-)) The noted and late dandy Sebastian Horsley said: “Self-pity is the most destructive of all narcotics” so enough of this wallowing introduction before we get hooked on it.

 

As a foreigner (I’m from Poland, the biggest country in Central – not Eastern! – Europe) who learned English as a fourth language, and having heard some English people laughing at, or complaining about, foreigners coming over here and not speaking the language properly, I live in fear of the impolite conversation that would inevitably ensue were someone to rudely (rather than constructively) criticise my English. In full fairness to you, English people, most of you are very tolerant of us foreigners: On a daily basis you deal (or struggle) with so many different accents and unclearly pronounced words, horribly damaged syntax and all the variety of alien sounds that surround you with admirable grace and patience. Sometimes we even dare correct you, which could be taken as impolite to say the least, but fortunately is usually taken with good humour!

 

I’ve even had some pleasant conversations here about my accent. For example, a nurse in Sutton Hospital who asked me, in a strong Irish accent: “where does your lovely accent come from?” not only making my day but also softening my pain after a hernia operation.

 

The funny thing is, living in England for the last ten years has shown me that many of those who complain about foreigners mangling your language can’t themselves have been paying much attention in school. Keep an eye open for the spelling and punctuation errors made on Facebook by these self-appointed guardians of your linguistic purity and you’ll see what I mean!

 

The proud nation that lives on the other side of the English Channel believes their difficult and beautiful mother tongue deserves a much higher estimation than you English give yours, and are far less forgiving of linguistic imperfections. I was lucky enough to learn to speak, read and write in French; I’ve also happened to visit L'Hexagone many times and in my experience they’re not as concerned with being polite about foreigners’ struggles with their language as you.

 

I first visited France in 1989 and unwillingly became involved in une conversation impolie. I was in my third year of studying French at university and a young native étudiante, not previously acquainted to anyone from the other side of the Iron Curtain, asked me: T'as un accent, t'es pas français? (You’ve an accent, you ain't French?). She didn’t mean to be rude but I couldn’t possibly be even remotely polite back as my feelings of being a quite promising student of French were in shreds. I do hope things have changed since then but I suspect not: The French appreciate it if you make an effort to speak their language, but don’t spare you any corrections and aren’t at all keen on foreign accents.

 

A native Italian speaker once gave my Italian pronunciation a very pleasant compliment when he genuinely believed I was originally from Bologna, a city I hadn’t even visited yet, and it took a while to convince him otherwise. My professore Signor Mazzini from Milan (the obvious reason for me speaking with a northern accent) should be thanked for that. My apparent congenital skills for foreign languages can take some credit too but not too much; the Italian language is easy to gather for a Polish brain, especially one that has been pre-loaded with the much tougher to embrace French phonological system.

 

Speaking of Italians, if you observe them talking and don’t understand the words, their conversations will quite often seem impolite. They’re loud, fast and use their hands to such an extent you wonder whether they’d be struck dumb if you cut their hands off, rendering the (im)politeness of their conversation irrelevant. Lovely cheerful people, they welcome anyone trying to speak to them in any form of Italian, and not only because they usually don't speak inglese, bless them, (thinking like that would be mean). Impolite conversation due to a foreigner’s poor Italian? Non esiste!

 

Regardless of linguistic issues, worst of all is when an innocent exchange of opinions suddenly and unintentionally becomes an impolite one; you bite your tongue too late and a word or two too many slips out. Undoing it means digging a deeper hole, the depth of which is proportional to your interlocutor's sense of humour, or lack of one, or just your misjudgement of their character. To illustrate this, let me tell you a story about when cultural differences and a slip of the tongue almost got me into some very hot water. You’re probably unfamiliar with the fact that, as neighbouring nations, the Poles and Lithuanians have a quite complicated and difficult history. Despite NOT being the same, let me say, tribe (Poles – along with Czechs, Russians, Bulgarians and Slovaks – being Slavs; Lithuanians – along with Latvians – being Balts) we had very strong bonds in the past. Our kings and princes reigned in Lithuania; their kings and princes were ours.

 

Have a look on a map of Europe in the 16th and 17th century, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a powerful state spreading from the Baltic Sea down to the Black Sea, incorporating today's Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and part of Russia. For centuries there was a co-existence, a sort of symbiosis between both our nations. At school, my generation of Poles was taught that Lithuania was our cousin nation, little sister, great ally, you name it. Our greatest and smartest kings, poets, politicians had Lithuanian blood in their veins and yet we still think of them as Poles (i.e. wonderful and strong king Jagiello, the greatest romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, the outstanding leader Pilsudski). Our national epic poem Pan Tadeusz (Sir Thaddeus, or the Last Lithuanian Foray: A Nobleman's Tale from the Years of 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books of Verse) starts with the following words:

 

     O Lithuania, my country, thou
     Art like good health; I never knew till now
     How precious, till I lost thee. Now I see
     The beauty whole, because I yearn for thee

 

The problem is, and you may have seen this coming, this is our Polish version of the history.

 

So during a short sightseeing break in Vilnius, my partner, some Lithuanian friends and I visited the old KGB prison which has been transformed into The Museum of Genocide Victims. There were plenty of pictures all over the walls documenting the atrocities that Soviets did to – as they called them – the enemies of the system, but the one that stood out most was a picture captioned with the, to my Polish eyes at least, horrible and deeply untrue words: "...during the Polish occupation of Vilnius".

 

I couldn't believe it! “Polish occupation!?” I asked in amazement. “What nonsense! We were never like the Nazis or Soviets! How, with our glorious and beautiful history of being constantly occupied by the neighbours or even wiped off the map, could we ever have thought about occupying anyone? Never! We never occupied Vilnius. IT'S ALWAYS BEEN OURS!”

 

My Lithuanian friends’ eyes looked daggers and hurt even more than my embarrassment. My partner said: “shut up, you’re going to start another war.” My local friends kindly explained that, from the Lithuanian point of view, history didn't look the way I thought it did. This could have ended impolitely, to say the least. Luckily we managed to stop this new war before I declared it for good. However the bad taste of these unfortunate words wouldn't leave me for the remaining days of my Lithuanian adventure. And my shame took days to heal.

 

Ultimately, I dare to believe that no matter your education, your linguistic skills or your ability to talk to people, an impolite conversation can happen. You elaborate your language, work out your accent, read tons of books to get your knowledge and back up your arguments. As a human being though you interact with other people from a variety of backgrounds, cultures and societies; you engage in plenty of conversations: merry, sad, smart and silly. What if some of them sometimes become impolite? You can always get a positive outcome, or at least a funny story to share with others, just as I did.

Matt Mironowicz

About the Writer

 

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