Americans get more indirect the politer we are; Arabs do it differently.

While I was in Lebanon, I had dinner in Saida with two impressive women. Over snacks and crepes, we talked about a whole wide range of topics, but I finally brought up a question I’d been struggling with in nearly a week of speaking Arabic every day.

How can I be polite in Arabic?

At my current level, about what the State Department would consider S-2 for speaking, and probably S-1 for listening and reading, I can get away with using awkward phrases because I’m clearly a learner and most people give me slack. It helps that I often look like an American. But as I get better, I want to demonstrate not only linguistic fluency but cultural competence.

I explained my problem with a particular phrase. Say I wanted to say:

“Would you like to go to the souq with me?”

in Arabic, expecting a range of answers including “yes,” “no,” “later,” “tomorrow,” and “maybe.” That is the question I would use for an acquaintance, for an older non-family-member, or for a near-stranger. I use the subjunctive (“would”) to distance myself from the request and the person I’m requesting from the personal consequences of a rejection. I’m showing politeness through indirectness.

That’s not how I would do it in Arabic. In Arabic, as the ladies for whom it was a first language explained, I would say (read English transliteration from right to left):

اأنا مع السوق إلى تذهبين هل
ana ma al-souq ila tathabeen Hal
me (no direct object/subject difference for personal pronouns in Arabic) with (implying in-person accompaniment) the market to you (female, singular) go Will (requiring a “yes” or “no” answer only),

Saying it this way seems terribly rude to me as an English speaker with a background in Spanish. First, I’m restricting the range of answers the person I’m talking to can use, which seems presumptuous. How do I know they only want to reply with a “yes” or “no” answer? What if they say “no” but if I’d asked a different way, they would have said “tomorrow”?

Then there’s using the “you” pronoun. Growing up in California, everyone learns a little Spanish, and I spent a summer in high school taking Spanish at UC Santa Cruz. This means that, when I speak my 3rd language, I tend to think in my second. And in Spanish, when addressing 1) a stranger, 2) an older person, 3) a person of higher rank, you (formal) use the you (formal). This is not true of all Spanish accents or all Spanish speakers–I think Spanish-speakers from Spain use the informal “you” a lot more than speakers from Mexico.

The last confusion isn’t one of politeness but of grammar–in English, when a verb is doing something to me, I use the direct object form of the first person singular pronouns (“me”) rather than the subject form (“I”). In Arabic, there’s only one. This is one of the many reasons why I react with confusion when people ask me if Arabic is hard. A language with regular spelling, no unpronounced-letters, only 3 tenses (as opposed to Latin’s 6), no subjunctive, and no class-based pronoun changes? On those metrics, it’s super simple compared to Spanish, French, Latin, or English. In Arabic, there is a way to indicate something is a direct object, but in some cases we use the same form as the subjective.

Likewise in Arabic, we don’t use “Please” very often–“I’d like a soda, please?” becomes “I want a soda.” or “Can (“yes” or “no” answer only) I have a soda?”–both of which feel very rude to me as an English speaker.

There is a formal “you” in Arabic, though more used by Egyptian dialect speakers, but that I’ve never heard used outside of a classroom. And there are ways to show politeness–when you meet someone, you talk to them and say that you’re pleased to meet them. When you sneeze, you say “Yahamulkulallah,” or when you say something nice about a child or someone’s luck, you say “ma-sha’allah”. Those are all social norms, the performance of which indicates membership of the club of adults who know how to behave.

I know I will rarely if ever pass for a native Arab speaker, but because the region and the language have squeezed their roots so deeply into my heart, I want to show my deference to them by speaking politely. But instead of using the subjunctive or open response questions, I guess I’ll just have to learn enough to demonstrate with my proficiency, rather than my verbalized etiquette, how much I value that region.

Inspirational Quote:

I’m on my way to the River of Jordan

Gonna wade right in to the rushing waters

I’m going down to the River of Jordan

And let the cool waters cleanse my soul.”–River of Jordan

1 Comment

  1. When you asked the question of your friends, what answers did you get? Did they understand the question?

    I have a similar problem even in English. I put in various indirect words plus a lot of please and thank you’s if I’m speaking with an older woman, any superior, even a stranger if they’re Southern. The culture is older and I guess a lot of earlier American habits are still in there. My language use will indicate my background – even as my habit of rising when an older woman comes into the room (rising to offer her a chair) does. I’ve had to fight this a lot as I moved into the museum world. When I was a Curator at the Tenn. State Museum I was the only female not a secretary, maid, etc. so I had to make it a point to pick up the check before lunch or open the door for the guy to go first. These actions startled the men (mostly Southern) but we could talk about it, in fact I would eventually bring it up. I felt It was being helpful to them to have it in the open.
    Maybe the same way would be useful with your friends, if they really know you. Try it first with close friends who trust you. In any case, I think making any issue like this part of the conversation is helpful. Maybe they haven’t thought about it before.
    As the world is changing so much even tentative moves like this can matter. I sat at dinner tonight with three women about my age who had been at Atria over 8 years and were still outraged at how much things had changed! They were all minor changes, but they obviously didn’t want any changes – and I had trouble biting my tongue to keep from being offensive. 2/3 of the people here are women and they still are mad because there is no husband or child to help them out. They seem crippled to me by this lifetime of dependence.

Get in touch

%d bloggers like this: