THE CULTURAL TIGHTROPE
I don’t find a satisfactory equivalent in Catalan or Spanish I AM ACCUSTOMED TO BEING ENGAGED IN CONVERSATION IN QUEUES IN MY OWN CULTURE
In this month’s column I’m going to address the concept of “mingling”. And the reason for this is I don’t find a satisfactory equivalent in Catalan or Spanish. And the reason for that is, it’s not a very common thing to do in my adopted culture. So what is it?
1. mix or cause to mix together.
2. move among and engage with others at a social function.
Hang on, what’s this nonsense I’m saying now? Of course this is something that all cultures do… So why then, one might ask, is there not a satisfactory equivalent in Catalan or Spanish? Relacionar-se? Far too broad a meaning to capture the idea of mingling in my book. If a person says “I’m just going to mingle…” in English, there’s no way they’re going to say “Espera, que me vaig a relacionar” in Catalan. And my explanation for that is that it just isn’t common for people to approach strangers and engage in conversation.
A recent example for me came when I was flying back to Barcelona from Lisbon, and the plane was full of Catalan and Spanish speakers. It started in the check-in queue, where I was (inadvertently) jostled a couple of times by a large mixed group of Spanish/Catalan speakers, and each time the jostler pointedly avoided saying anything to me directly, while one of their group made an apologetic gesture in my direction. Now in my culture that would at least trigger some kind of verbal interaction, and if a friendly one, as is often the case, then spark further conversation between the parties involved.
Next example, we’ve made our way to the boarding gate, and the queuing “system” appears to involve everyone huddling together in a small space as near as possible to the gate itself. Again, plenty of inadvertent jostling and a veritable cacophony of non-stop rabbiting, but only to one’s own group, and even across several people’s heads, or in some cases the entire hall, but without engaging with anyone outside the group, i.e. no mingling with strangers.
It always appears to me that Spanish and Catalan groups take over the space and act as if no one else is in their vicinity, while people from other cultures have little compunction about talking to anyone and everyone around them. Indeed, in my adopted culture mingling almost appears to be a sin to be avoided at all costs. At this point I should probably concede that I’ve also witnessed groups from other cultures, especially Italians and Portuguese, doing the same thing, so it’s certainly not just a Catalan/Spanish cultural difference.
Anyway, to provide further context to what I’m saying, I am very accustomed to being engaged in conversation in queues and waiting rooms in my own culture, almost as if people are desperate to appease the monotony of waiting by chatting to a stranger. And so it must be very strange for people from cultures where it’s not common to suddenly be engaged in conversation by a British, Irish, American etc. person who is simply alleviating the monotony.
Could this be attributable to language though? That is, not wanting to have to engage with someone in English (I certainly have the appearance of an English rather than a Catalan or Spanish-speaker)? I don’t think so, as it’s rare you come across someone you cannot communicate with in some way.
It’s just strange, for someone like me, that whenever I’m in a crowd of people in my adopted culture they will talk over/around me as if I’m not there rather than dare enter into conversation with a stranger. And I can only assume it’s also pretty weird to be talked to by strangers when you’re not used to it.