Saturday, April 28, 2012

May it please your honour


My mum was appalled that I was eating with just a fork. "I didn't bring you up to behave like that," she said, "I thought you had better manners."

Now I like to think of myself as a reasonably well mannered chap. I open doors for people and I still give up my seat to the few people even older than myself on the bus. Yet, every day, here in Spain it's possible that my behaviour slightly upsets the majority of the people I deal with.

We Britons are famous for overusing the words please and thank you. A Spanish man I know in Pinoso tells me that our insidious influence now means that gracias and por favor are much more common amongst Pinoseros than they were ten years ago. He also tells me that we are responsible for the tables and chairs outside bars but that's a different story. Spaniards are not generally as big as we are on the please and thank yous. That's because they have another very common way of being polite.

The Spanish have two ways of saying you. The first way of saying you, usted, derives from a form of address that translates as “your mercy” - it's directly comparable with the “your honour” we Britons used to use years ago. Usted is used for people who you don't know well, people that you are not on first name terms with. The other way to say you is tú. This is used with friends, relations, animals and children. Well, that's what they taught me when I first began to learn Spanish though they forgot to mention that it isn't the same for Latin Americans. The thing is that ideas change. My first Spanish grammar class was a long time ago and language develops rapidly. To my way of thinking calling someone usted is a bit like addressing them as sir or madam. There may be circumstances when it seems right but, most of the time it sounds distinctly odd, a way of toadying or grovelling. Indeed, in some circumstances, being over-polite is a subtle way of taking the mickey. No, nowadays we're all much more egalitarian. That's why we use first names with people we hardly know isn't it?

So, I transferred my English sensibility to the way I deal with Spanish people. I don't want the woman on the cash desk at Mercadona to think that I'm lording it over her so I address her as tú. It's the same in any bar. Then it becomes a habit. That was why I used tú with the Guardia Civil who pulled over my innocent car at 2am in the morning. I call everyone tú.

I thought that Spaniards were doing something similar, certainly young people when they aren't calling each other tío, call each other tú. I thought that I was doing my bit for equality but a youngish Spanish woman I was talking to the other day pulled me up about it. “It's just a bit rude to address anyone as tú you know, unless you know them well,” she said.

If there had been a knife and fork handy I would have grasped them firmly to prove that I was well brought up.

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