As a language teacher to people of many, many countries (my latest acquisition is from Equatorial Guinea- the only country in Africa that speaks Spanish!), part of the wondrous world of intercultural communication are the mishaps. Like when I beckon to a student (the palm-up, curled finger “come here” gesture) and forget that in Asia it’s used to call dogs. Or like when I tell a Mexican that it’s OK (thumb and forefinger making an “O”, remaining fingers straight up), inadvertently calling him an a-hole.
But the greatest barrier isn’t the odd gestural mishap or the multiplicity of first languages in one class, it’s the bows.
And I’m not talking about used-for-the-hair, isn’t-she-cute bows.
From Merriam-Webster: “to bend the head, body, or knee in reverence, submission, or shame; to cause to incline; especially in respect or submission”.
Synonyms: curtsy, genuflection, kowtow, nod, obeisance.
I get bowed to on a regular basis.
No, I’m not the queen of my universe, but perhaps of my classroom (it’s the small things that count).
And for all the genuine respect and reverence (?) that I’m sure I elicit (snort), I am genuinely shamed every time it happens. It’s probably an Americanism- this freedom for all, none better than another, caste-less society we’ve formed is like few on earth (for better or worse). My reaction, even with an advanced degree in linguistics and cross-cultural communication, is one of great embarrassment. Invariably I either make an abortive gesture to stop the person or attempt to control the primitive yawlp of “DON’T” that surges from my insides.
How to deal with this? I usually incline my head in return, but then I feel like a beneficent monarch or self-satisfied bishop.
At least there’s no kow-towing going on. That would break me.