This afternoon, I woke up at around 12 PM after working most of the night on some projects I got going.
Though, as usual, sometimes I can be a bit lazy with actually getting out of bed as I usually never have much to do during the day.
So, realistically speaking, I probably got up at around 1 PM.
By that time, I checked emails, listened to some music and so on.
Finally decided to get some tostadas.
To my luck, there’s some really nice tasty ones only about a 3 minute walk away but unfortunately the only place I can find selling them close to my house.
Roll the clock about 4 more hours anyhow of eating tostadas, taking a shower, listening to music, reading a book briefly and so on.
Now it’s roughly 5 PM.
And, as I wrote about before in previous articles, I’ve been trying to get a package in Mexico City.
It’s some debit cards that I really need to withdraw money from.
As I wrote here, I’ve never had good luck with the postal system in Latin America for getting international shipping.
The packages have literally never arrived.
To my great astonishment, the package arrived only 2 days after it was sent to Mexico City.
But, to my bad luck, the UPS driver could not find the house I live in.
Which I can’t blame him entirely because, as I wrote here, the numbering system of the streets in this neighborhood of Pedregal de Santo Domingo is really fucked up.
One house is numbered 237 and the next will be something like 14.
It can be really confusing finding any house down here.
At any rate, UPS was lost and needed some help.
I called them this afternoon at around 5 PM.
“Hablas Ingles o Prefieres Español?”
Initially, I had difficulty reaching a representative of UPS by phone.
They had some message recommending I call another number for anything related to getting a package.
So I wrote the number down and called it.
And it didn’t work.
“That number is no longer in service” was what I heard.
So I fucked around with the original UPS number I had trying to get anyone to answer the phone and hopefully have them direct me to whoever could help me.
After the first two attempts in which nobody answered, I finally got someone to answer through the Sales department.
It was some lady who answered the phone asking in Spanish “how can I help you?”
Immediately, I start off by answering with something like the following: “Hola, me llamo Matt. Vivo en Ciudad de Mexico y estoy esperando un paquete que ustedes tienen.”
And right away the chick responds back in Spanish “eres un extranjero o Mexicano?”
Probably because of my accent.
And I tell her that I’m from the US in Spanish.
To which she responds something to the effect of “ah ok, espera un minute.”
Then she transferred me over to someone else.
Assumingly another employee who speaks English.
I didn’t even ask her if they had anyone who could speak in English but, being a foreigner, I just assumed that she thinks I’d be more comfortable doing business in English than Spanish.
Which, being honest, I am because, despite studying and speaking Spanish for like 13 or 14 years, English will always be my native language.
And, while I probably would’ve found her switching me over to someone else as annoying because I hate it when Mexicans are ignorant about foreigners speaking Spanish (and how often their English is shit too), I didn’t mind it too much in this situation.
As I wrote here, when it comes to more sensitive matters, speaking in English would be nicer usually and this is a sensitive matter because I need that damn debit card as I have a limited amount of money on person that’ll only last me another 3 months.
While that sounds like a lot of time, I simply prepared myself for a possibility that the card would never show until months later because, as I said before, I have literally never been able to get a package sent to me anywhere in Latin America (Mexico included).
So then another woman answers the phone anyhow after like 5 minutes of waiting.
Right away, she answers the phone in Spanish “Hola, buenas tardes. Como le puedo ayudar?”
And, given that I was transferred over to her because of the assumption that I speak English, I decided to milk it.
“Hablas ingles o prefieres español?” i asked her.
She immediately responded “puedo hablar en inglés y español.”
Of course, I missed a grand opportunity there, huh?
I could’ve asked her that question in English in stereotypical American style where I speak to her very slowly and loudly asking “dO yOu SpEaK eNgLiSh?!?!!?”
And, being honest, I do feel a little bit entitled by switching the conversation to English.
After all, we ARE in Mexico where the common language is Spanish.
On top of that, not every Mexican speaks English very well even if they say they do.
So, being we are in HER country, it is less rude in my opinion to stick to the national language in the same way I believe people in the US should learn English.
Still, if we can switch to English, that actually would be nice.
Sometimes you do miss speaking your native language once in a blue moon. It’s nice in its own way.
A Perspective on Accents
As I wrote here, you once in a blue moon will meet a local in Latin America who has a VERY hard time understanding you because he has no experience listening to Spanish in a gringo accent.
Granted, every gringo is different with how their way of speaking works with Spanish.
Some have MUCH rougher accents than others.
No matter how good their grammar is or how many words they know, what comes out of their mouth will be some weird shit to understand for THIS type of local.
Truth be told though, it’s not a REAL issue if we’re being honest because, even with a tough accent, all that is required is for the local to concentrate a little bit more on the words he’s hearing.
And, if we’re being honest, it goes both ways.
As I wrote here, I once met a Mexican who wanted to “practice English” with me and his accent was rough to say the least.
Though, given all my years listening to Mexicans speak, I genuinely don’t find most Mexicans to have an “accent” problem when speaking in English because I’m similarly used to their accent by now.
It’s only a problem when their understanding of grammar or vocabulary is shit.
But, in this case, I think the tables were turned on me to be honest.
After she told me that basically either language is fine, I switch to English.
And we got right to it.
Explained to her my situation.
And she wanted me to describe what the house looks like so that the UPS driver has a better chance of finding it next time.
Was her English good?
Though she did misunderstood me a few times.
Like if I told her that the house number is 50, she heard 5.
But that’s understandable. Nobody is perfect.
Her grammar was good and her vocabulary was good.
More importantly, her understanding of what I was saying was good.
There was only one slight problem though that, near the end of the conversation, forced us back to Spanish.
And that was her accent.
Now, as I said, I’m more accustomed to the Mexican accent and so the accent a Mexican carries with his English isn’t the worst thing in the world for me.
The worst are Chinese folks. No offense to them but some have VERY thick accents for me in English. That shit is tough to understand.
Still, with her specifically, I had my fair share of moments on several occasions kindly asking her to repeat herself.
And, in the moment, it made me feel like the tables were turned.
I really did think to myself “maybe this is what it’s like for that rare Mexican to hear me speak in Spanish with my gringo accent?”
Ultimately though, the conversation switched back to Spanish in the very last 5 minutes or so.
Specifically, there was a moment where I asked her to repeat back to me to make sure that she put down accurately the basic contact info.
The phone number to reach back to, the description of the house, the exact address, etc.
And, for some reason, her English started to malfunction at the beginning with describing the house.
Looking at the clock and I see it’s almost 6 PM.
Knowing that her shift is almost over as they seem to close at 6, the malfunctioning did make me think of switching back just to wrap this up.
But, on the flip side, I wasn’t sure because, from experience interacting with Latin Americans, some really just take it up offensively when you do that.
Almost like an indirect implication that “oh, you’re not educated enough to speak English.”
Some just take it personally.
Though, being honest, I’d bet people of most nationalities would during a context like that.
Or maybe they would – depends on the person, I suppose.
And, like I said, her English really wasn’t BAD at all.
It was fine!
But, for some reason, we hit a stump.
A malfunctioning of English began with describing the house in which, due to her accent or how she was pronouncing whatever word she was trying to pronounce, I just straight up didn’t understand her.
So I made the choice in the moment to just clarify the description of the house in Spanish (and, as I said, my Spanish isn’t perfect by any means either).
“el edificio al lado de la casa es azul, si?”
There was a second pause or so of silence.
To which she responds back in Spanish “el edificio es azul or la casa?”
To which I explained to her that it’s not MY house that is blue but the building right next to it.
From there, I actually found out that she made a few other minor errors in putting down the information (a slight mistake in the phone number she wrote down to contact me later and she forgot to add a few extra details about the house that would make it more identifiable).
But, like I said, I’m not shitting on her English.
We all make mistakes – especially when the language isn’t our native language.
Like I said, my Spanish is far from perfect as I’m not a native speaker myself.
Without question, I’m not trying to act superior to her based on foreign language competency.
But, more importantly, that interaction did open my eyes to something minor when it comes to living in Latin America.
As I implied before, sometimes you got that type of Latin America who JUST isn’t used to foreigners speaking Spanish (or Portuguese in Brazil, I’d imagine) with a strong accent.
Like I said, the accents I’ve heard coming out of China where folks from there try to speak English have been the worst examples I can think of.
Compared to that, the typical Mexican accent I’ve heard in English really isn’t much to complain about.
No offense to the great folks of China – you all are awesome outside of your genocidal government.
Still, getting back to the point, you got moments in Latin America where you can better see the perspective of the local.
And so, similar to the Mexican struggling with the gringo accent in Spanish, I found myself being the gringo struggling with the Mexican accent in English.
On the surface anyhow, the lesson of the article is really nothing more than that as a basic lesson in regards to speaking foreign languages and how something like an accent can complicate mutual understanding.
Like maybe a gringo or a Mexican who gets frustrated at the other party not understanding perfectly what they are saying even though their understanding of grammar and vocabulary is objectively good minus some minor mistakes (and it really is just an accent problem).
But life goes on!
My advice for this moment?
First, for either the gringo or Mexican as it’s a lesson for both depending on the context of who is speaking whose language, just don’t get too frustrated if an accent is complicating misunderstanding.
Second, is it appropriate to switch to the other person’s language immediately after hearing their accent?
Honestly, if the other party (Mexican or gringo) is truly struggling with your language, I could see how they’d be grateful if you switched it to their native language.
Though, having said that, you also might have an accent problem and, even worse, their comprehension of your language actually might be better than you assume and it really is just an accent problem.
In that scenario, you might annoy the other party by switching too soon.
Why would they be annoyed?
Social context is everything.
Maybe it’s a Mexican in the US who feels insecure about “sticking out” as an illegal immigrant and wants to blend in better (not saying every Mexican is illegal but many are and do prefer to not stick out as much).
Even if they are legal (the Mexican in the US or the gringo in Mexico as even gringos can be illegal), they might not like “feeling like an outsider” even if they are and want to “fit in more” by speaking the local language.
Also, some folks just don’t like being treated as free language tutors or find your insistence on trying to come across as “educated” or “educado” to be annoying.
And trust me in saying that you got gringos who like to show off their language skills to come across as smart also.
Also, it could be just that your language skills suck worse ass than his does and that’s why he wouldn’t like to switch back.
Or maybe he’s in a hurry and doesn’t want a 5 minute English or Spanish lesson when he only asked you where is the nearest bookstore.
Third, be mindful that some mental energy on your end MIGHT be necessary to understand the other when they are speaking your language in an accent.
When I was speaking with that woman today, I had to put in the type of mental energy to understand her that was similar to when I first began speaking Spanish and had to think how to say things properly.
Truth be told, that mental energy is gone these days whenever I speak Spanish as I’m very used to it now and it was the first time in a while that I felt it.
It’s what I call “the foreign language mental energy.”
Ok, I just made that shit up. Sounds like a nerd term.
Anyway, you get what I mean. When speaking across languages (be it yourself speaking a language you are not used to or listening to someone speak in your language with an accent), just be prepared for the mental energy involved.
As I said before, I have an accent in Spanish!
I’d like to think that it’s not too rough on Latin American ears as most people don’t make “that face” when I’m speaking to them in Spanish.
Especially not those who are used to the gringo accent or any local that I speak to regularly in Spanish.
But “that face” is one where they squint their eyes, lean their head closer to you and put on the great impersonation of someone trying to decode The Zimmerman Telegram.
So, if you want to be nice and try to understand someone speaking your language in their accent, just be prepared for some mental energy possibly.
At any rate, that’s all I got to say.
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And enjoy this song here that inspired the title of the article as I wasn’t sure what to name it.
The Rolling Stones -- Sympathy for the Devil
Thanks for reading.