Language is inextricably bound up with culture, and every culture has rules about what is and isn’t acceptable to say in public. Here in Argentina “why?” is almost a dirty word, and is tied up with the verb “cuestionar”, meaning "to question” which is a definite no-no. To question is to disrespect, and being asked “are you questioning me?” means that you are being accused of deliberately dissing someone. What I can’t figure out is how (if?) it is even possible to find out about the reasons behind someone’s decision making processes in this linguistic climate… which may explain why there is no really apt Spanish equivalent of “accountability”.
The British, on the other hand, have all manner of sensibilities regarding forms of address used for strangers, where no such squeamishness exists here. In the fruit and veg shop I am usually “negrita” (little blacky; there’s irony for you), and in most other contexts I’m normally referred to by strangers as “flaca” (skinny… though not at the moment). In my current state, at Scout leaders training the other week I became “chica embarazada” (pregnant girl). However, this all becomes positively tame in the light of my experience yesterday…
I was sitting in a clothes shop, taking mate and chewing the fat… (I’d put some warmer clothes on Joni for the first time in several months, and discovered that all his long trousers had taken on the appearance of bermuda shorts; we’re going to have to stop feeding that kid. Luckily a friend from church has a clothes shop and she did me a hefty discount for buying in bulk.) So anyway… I was sitting in my friend’s clothes shop taking mate and chewing the fat with her, when in walked a large lady, hoping to buy a coat. Cue shop assistant rifles through stock looking for a model to fit. No luck. Friend is called to help. Still no result, but a solution could be just round the corner, or rather 600 kms away; “Are you in a hurry? My husband has gone to buy stock in Buenos Aires, so I could call him now and we’d have some here when he’s back tomorrow… OK, let me just ring him then…”
There then followed the most amazing phone conversation, during which I could feel my eyebrows disappearing into my hair-line and finally up to the ceiling somewhere as I listened to our side of it…. “Hi… I need you to bring a couple of women’s coats… but outsize… no not just XL I mean like actually supersize… you remember those really huge ones that so-and-so sold us that time… well kind of like that, only at least two sizes bigger… yes really…. humongous”. All of which was taking place within two feet of the coatless lady, and yet neither side so much as batted an eyelid, much less appeared to find anything usual or embarrassing in the exchange. Which I guess means it must have been perfectly acceptable behaviour. Call me British, or call me a coward; I’m just not sure I would dare try it.