In these essays, I have tried to introduce readers not only to new English word and phrases, but also to English ideas.
All travellers know this experience: we speak to a foreigner, and he says a sentence which we understand perfectly. But we do not know what he really means. For instance, when an Englishman says: ‘I will phone you some time’, the meaning seems to be clear. A foreigner expects that Englishman to telephone him.
But in fact, ‘some time’ is often a polite way of saying, ‘never’. He deliberately uses the vague phrase ‘some time’, instead of saying rudely, ‘never’. If he really intends to telephone, he will say, ‘I’ll give you a call in two or three days’ or ‘next week’, or even ‘next month’. When he has mentioned a number, or a definite time like next week, he will do it. He has made a promise, and he will keep it. (Or at least, he will feel very guilty if he does not.)
If he does not mention any time, but says only, I’ll telephone you’, it is not a promise. He may, or he may not. But if he deliberately uses a vague phrase like ‘some time’, he is saying politely that probably he will never phone.
In Britain, we learn these things when we are very small. I do not mean that we all keep our promises; but we know the ideal, and feel ashamed if we break a promise.
When I was a boy, my family had a summer cottage by the sea, where we lived during the summer holidays. One of our neighbours was a fine old English gentleman, who also had a cottage there: he was a director of a big motor tyre manufacturing company. Both he and my mother were keen gardeners, and one day he told her that he had received some unusual tulip bulbs from Holland. She looked interested, and he said: I’ll bring you some, tomorrow morning.’
The next morning, the door-bell rang, and I happened to answer it. He was standing there, looking terribly ill, and his daughter was holding his arm to support him. He held out a little parcel and said: ‘Please give this to your mother.’ Then he went unsteadily back to his car, helped by his daughter. She told me later that he had a terrible heart attack in the night, but he insisted on bringing the tulips: he would not let her bring them, because he had promised to bring them himself.
I was very impressed by this. Like many young people, I had often made promises casually, hoping to keep them, but not worrying if I could not. From then on, however, I was much more careful about making promises.
It is not necessary to know all about hundreds of foreign customs and ways of thinking. The main thing is to realize that other people may think very differently from ourselves, and not to be surprised.
British people never eat octopus, but we have long international experience, and we are not surprised or upset when Spanish or Japanese people offer us octopus to eat. So if you are a guest at a big party in the Middle East, do not be surprised when the host offers you a sheep’s eye to eat! Shut your eyes and gulp it down, like we do with the octopus. Then say, ‘Very good.’ (They never offer second one.)
©Trevor Leggett 1987
Index for this series of articles
2 Consideration for Strangers
3 Social Conventions and Surprises
4 Cruel to be Kind
5 Losing to Oneself
7 It Likes That
9 Japanese Logic