• Joia

Today’s rhaps: Lingua franca is NOT cultura franca


São Pedro de Moel, when life was simpler

Communication is like buying a car: depreciation begins as soon as you drive it off the lot. As soon as the words leave your mouth, only a percentage of your intended meaning reaches its target. Best scenario: if you and your listeners share a language and a culture, maybe 90 to 95% gets through, tops. If they like you, they’ll stick around to pummel you into friendsplaining exactly what you meant, in case one of you thinks something is wrong. If you share a language but not a culture, say, you and they are English, American, Irish, Scottish, Australian—whatever you say has about a 70 to 80% chance of being understood. Still pretty good odds. If you and your listeners share neither a language nor a culture, you’re spouting thickly accented niceties to each other (or what you sincerely hope are niceties), you’re down to about 50 to 60% communication. It will seem to be much higher, because you’re all stammering yes or sim or oui or da or ja while nodding up-and-down or sideways, whatever is called for. But the next time you speak, a curious number of little facts you thought were lodged in your listener’s memory seem to be missing. Or perhaps were never there. Yup, most likely never got there in the first place. Turns out they didn’t even participate in the same conversation you had. There was a faulty connection. Can you hear me now?


Digital communication does not improve matters. What reads as offensive insult to one may simply be light humor to the other. The world won’t end if I don’t do what? Are you making fun of the very thing you asked me to do in the first place? No of course not, it was just a little joke. What, you are angry? No of course not, I was just being ironic. Dry, wry, high. Sigh. Go figure.


What I keep forgetting, though, is the part about the listener only comprehending a percentage of what I am saying. I watch dumbfounded as my listeners take off like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, wondering why on earth they feel compelled to do and say these absurd things…especially when I am then expected to justify the damn windmills! My words had absolutely nothing to do with windmills; in fact, they were pointing in a different direction entirely. There weren’t even any windmills there. But it is my job now to explain the existence, the essence, the obstructive nature of windmills?


Yes. Because lingua franca is understood by many to mean cultura franca. Which of course does not exist. The default culture. But if you do not live within this delusionary, mythical, colonial, default culture, you will be expected to take on the thankless and endless task of translating every little bump in the linguistic road, every little geographical twist in the map, for those who stare cluelessly out through this Looking Glass. Intersectionality means exactly nothing to them. They can define it properly, yes, but they have no idea what it means to be invisible to, well, to them. Because who you are is invisible to them. So it will then be your job to interpret and explain away the misunderstandings every time as your own failings because the people who think they are in charge cannot make mistakes. You are the one who got it wrong. You are "too Portuguese" or "too English" or "too female” or "too male" or "too queer" or “too Caucasian.” Or the all time favorite of the default bullies, “too sensitive.” Shape up. Stiff upper lip now. And don't wallow in it, you need to get on with it.


I'm in the peculiar position of "passing" in several cultures while being fully acceptable in none. I make mistakes in all my languages! I mispronounce words I’ve only read but not heard, I cannot follow dress codes properly, I cannot play assigned roles correctly or recite my lines with the right intonation. So when I’m told we share a lingua franca I'm wary, because I've learned that I will need to accommodate you if you think this means we share a cultura franca. We don’t. It does not exist and it sure as hell does not represent a culture superior to the ones we actually do inhabit. Even so, we know that when we say X and you hear Y, it is we who must rush in to fabricate a motive for the mishap, to trot out our wiry tin toolkits and repair the alleged faulty connection.


Can you hear me now?

18 SEPTEMBER 2018

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