We are in Greece for a long overdue vacation. We stopped in Germany on the way to Greece to visit some friends. My German vocabulary consists primarily of lines from the Wagner operas. Not exactly useful when traveling in modern Germany. So I find myself in the position of most tourists – in a foreign country where I, like almost all Americans, do not know the language.
It is customary when traveling abroad to ask, “Do you speak English?” And that’s what I have done in previous trips abroad. Something strange happened in this trip, however. From the very first situation in Frankfurt, I found myself asking, “May I speak English?” It surprised me that I asked the usual language question in this manner. And I said to myself, there’s something right about it, and I continued to ask the same question in all subsequent situations where I needed to ask someone for help or directions.
“Am I redundant yet?” That’s the question a man we met at Frankfurt airport asks his boss in London with hope for the day when the answer will be, “Yes.” That will mark the day when he can retire, when he becomes “redundant”. So he asks his boss on a regular basis if he is redundant yet.
I love the concept, and I love the question. It’s the deflating question par excellence. We all want to feel needed, that the world revolves around any one of us. To feel redundant is the answer to all the self-importance we impose on ourselves. And it is an imposition, a burden. To feel redundant is a more accurate indicator of our standing in the universe.
The two questions represent what I’m not on a daily basis, and they both hit me at the same time – one coming from my own better innards, the other coming from a Londoner looking forward to retirement.
How often do we really think about the words we use? And how do our words often reflect underlying, deep-seated inherited attitudes about the world and people who are not like us? How often do our words reflect an underlying imperialist attitude?
When an American asks, “Do you speak English?”, it really implies a position of superiority. Can you help me in my language? Because I never cared to learn your language! But you should know my language. After all, my language has conquered the world – and along with my language, everything my country stands for! So, surely I can expect you to speak my language. “Do you speak English?”
But when I ask, “May I speak English?”, I’m placing myself in the position of lacking something. I am making myself redundant! I am expressing my own lack of knowledge. I am renouncing my imperialist expectation, and I’m asking the other person permission to speak my language, because I don’t know any other, in the hope that he or she will help me in my ignorance. There’s a world of difference in how I ask for help. Do I place the focus in the other person and what I expect or hope for in the other person; or do I place the focus on my shortcoming and need?
Above all, asking “May I speak English?”, also represents respect for the country where I am traveling and the people of that country. I don’t think most people who ask in the customary way are showing disrespect and most people would say I’m overthinking this matter and drawing too many implications that most people can’t relate to. That’s probably true. But I’ve become so sensitive to matters of imperialist pretensions and inherited attitudes that it’s natural for me to overthink something so basic as how I ask for help in a foreign country. Maybe I’m overthinking, but too often we don’t think enough!
Maybe I’m overthinking, but too often we don’t think enough, because we are so important. That’s where the Londoner’s question comes in. Redundant is the antidote to self-important. So yes, let me be redundant. And may I speak English in my redundancy?