“Write the word ‘pineapple’ at the start of your application so I know you’ve read it through.”
“Only native speakers from North America can apply.”
And then, in all caps.
“IF ‘PINEAPPLE’ DOES NOT APPEAR AT THE START OF YOUR REPLY, IT WILL IMMEDIATELY BE SENT TO TRASH.”
“IF YOU ARE NOT A NATIVE SPEAKER, DON’T WASTE MY TIME! DON’T BOTHER APPLYING!”
My right eyebrow shot up involuntarily and with a dismissive click, I left the job board. No, I didn’t respond to the post, but not for the more obvious reason. A good piece of writing speaks for itself, after all, regardless of the writer’s native tongue or country of birth.
Incorrect assumption: Native speakers from North America are better writers.
Q & A with a Gentleman in a Zegna Suit
The distinguished-looking Caucasian in an expensive suit walked into the international hotel’s business center in Beijing. He was agitated and spoke hurriedly to the Chinese staff at the counter. I heard her say, “I’m not sure if it’s possible, sir.” That was my cue to make it possible and meet the hotel’s standard of “Yes, we can.” I introduced myself as business center manager and asked how we could be of assistance. He needed his two sheets of handwritten notes to be typed based on a specific format. It was the meeting minutes of a joint-venture discussion, and he wanted it done within the hour.
I looked it over, told him I will attend to it myself, and assured him it would be ready in one hour. I would, however, need him to review a first printout in about 35 minutes. The relief on his face was instantaneous. Then, I asked if he wanted the document reproduced exactly the way it was written, or if I could make corrections to grammar and spellings. He was practically beaming when he said, “Yes, please. Add the necessary corrections to grammar and spelling.”
The first draft needed formatting adjustments, which one of the capable Chinese staff offered to complete. While waiting for the final printout, we had a conversation that went like this.
Guest: “You speak English well. You’re not Chinese then?”
Me: “No, I’m not.”
Guest: “You are good with written English too. So did you grow up in the U.S?”
Me: “No. I was born and grew up in Manila, the Philippines.”
Guest: “Ah. You’re Filipino. Then your mother tongue must be Tagalog.”
Me: “I’m fluent in Tagalog but it’s not my mother tongue. Tagalog is the national language but there are 8 other major dialects in the Philippines plus minor ones, a total of over 80.
Guest: His eyes turned wide, and then he concluded, “So your mother tongue is one of the dialects.”
Me: My mother tongue is Spanish. It’s the first language I learned from my mother and that’s what we spoke at home while growing up.
Guest: His lips turned up in a tentative smile but his brows were furrowed, equal parts confusion and amusement showing on his face.
At that moment, the staff came back to hand over his completed document and spared us both– him from other confusing surprises, me from a long explanation of Philippine history.
An Asian in China who speaks good English is not Chinese.
A person who is good with written English grew up in the U.S.
A Filipino’s mother tongue must be Tagalog.
A Principal’s Stereotype
We picked up the same book at the same time from a pile of books. Then we both smiled and insisted the other keep it. She took it. It was the annual sale at a bookshop I frequented in the suburb of Manila. The woman who I almost had a book-grabbing contest with had her arms full but appeared to be bent on getting more books. While thumbing through the other titles, we got into an easy conversation about … well, books.
Then, she asked what I do. I said I’m a writer. She paused and gave me a pitying look that dripped, poor you, followed by the actual words, “You don’t make much money writing.” It was a statement. Ah, the starving writer stereotype. I shrugged my shoulders noncomittally, quite willing to let her think what she wanted. She was a high school principal in a public school, she proudly told me. She had the important side job of buying books to add to the school library.
Later, I saw her again at the pay out counter. She had at least a dozen books. Once more, there was the pitying glance as I paid for my measly 4 books. I don’t think it would have mattered to her that I had more books than I could read on my ebook reader. In her mind, I fit the stereotype of a starving writer.
Incorrect assumption: Writers are poorly paid.
The Power to Un-Make Your Day
It’s been one month from starting a new job assignment and I still wasn’t used to the long and winding corridors of the palace-type international hotel in Muscat, Oman. I was on my way to the sales office where I worked when I passed a function room. From inside, I heard the GM’s secretary barking orders at waiters and secretaries as she checked the set up for a meeting of luxury hotel GMs in the gulf region. She spoke with an acquired British accent interlaced with a natural sing-song from South Asia.
As I passed the open door of the meeting room, I heard her call out, “Hey you! Come here! I stopped, took a long, slow breath and braced for an unpleasant encounter. That brief delay brought her out of the room and she called out again, louder this time. “You there! Did you hear me?” My right eyebrow shot up involuntarily as I turned to her and asked, ”Are you addressing me?” This, apparently, came out louder than I meant it to because the waiters and secretaries turned to look at us.
The scene froze for a few tense seconds. Then she dismissed me with a wave of her hand and a curt “Never mind,” and walked back into the function room. I turned to continue on my way but first, I gamely returned the smiles of the waiters and the thumbs-up sign of the secretaries. This GM’s secretary had a habit of ordering everybody around and giving the other department secretaries—most of whom were Filipinas—an especially difficult time.
Incorrect assumption: People who are accommodating and friendly, such as Filipinos, are pushovers.
Working with a cross-cultural team is a rewarding experience that comes with challenges. English is the unifying language, but messages get lost or switched as individuals do their mental translations. When one person in the team flaunts wrongly perceived superiority to wield power that is anchored on a job title, complications arise needlessly.
It helps to be aware of and distinguish between assertiveness and ill-mannered behavior/arrogance. The reflex involuntary rising of one eyebrow has served me well. It does that when confronted with a testy tone of voice, a nasty turn of phrase, or ALL-CAPS screaming on an online job board. That’s the signal to steer clear. Such individuals do not fit the profile of a productive collaborator who regards team members as equals and recognizes good writing, whether or not English is one’s first language.
Back at the book sale, the cashier handed me my change together with a brief Survey Form of customers’ reading habits. There were only 5 blanks, which I completed while standing. The last blank asked for mother tongue. Ah, that again. I paused for half a second, scribbled “Dothraki,” dropped the form in the box, and walked away, whistling.
It’s funny how an obviously wrong answer can lead to a correct assumption. One of the customers surveyed has read George R.R. Martin’s recent volumes.