Friday, March 05, 2010

what we reveal when we say the things we say

sabin left this drawing lying on the stairs this morning. is it the monsters within?

ever since my harrowing adventure into the depths of hell with the social authorities on wednesday, i've been pondering language. and the ways in which we reveal so much more of ourselves than we even intend to in the vocabulary choices we make. the slip of the tongue that made a girl who was employed in the union office refer to me as "it there (den der)" instead of "her over there (hende der)" to her colleague was extremely telling of how those behind the desk really feel about all of us losers cattle unemployed folks. and i can tell you that referring to a person as den (it) in danish is quite rude. husband was shocked.

of course, i was largely thinking about what others reveal in what they say, but naturally i reveal myself too. i am definitely adverse to not belonging or any whiff of anything that makes me think that i'm not accepted. this is why the natural danish introversion towards people they don't know sometimes feels very insulting and provokes me. i feel it as a lack of acceptance of me as a person, even tho' after all these years, i know it's not really that. i can't really escape that that's how it feels to me. and it's partially because of how i choose to formulate it, even in describing it to myself.

our words shape our world. if we choose positive words, the world seems much more positive, negative words make things seem black. but we reveal our innermost thoughts and concerns with the things we express again and again, even if we're not actually speaking of those things. i'll explain what i mean by that...

the instructor on my "course" on wednesday revealed when he introduced himself that he was recently divorced and trying to sell a large house that seemed very empty during the half of the month when his children weren't there, but was the perfect size when they were. in my view, this information was totally unnecessary. what we needed to know were his name, who he worked for and maybe a bit about his qualifications/background - "i've been teaching these courses for x-years." we actually had no need for his age or marital status or to know he was having difficulty getting rid of a large house. (aside: danes always tell their age first off and in fact, i realized recently that they've trained me to do so too, because i did it when i introduced myself in our flickr 365 group! funny, because as an american, it used to shock the hell out of me when people did it. ack! i'm being assimilated!!)

but it ended up being interesting that he told us these things, because it went a long way towards explaining many of the things he said. we had a discussion of personal competences - your personal traits that make you a good employee - works well with others, smiles, helps out - you know, the kind of things that were on your kindergarten report card. throughout that discussion he dropped critical remarks again and again about how all of this was "feminine piss." it was clear that under the surface (but not very far under) he had a lot of anger and resentment towards women and anything that smacked of a  feminine mode of expression. that anger he had inside ended up more important than maintaining a professional relationship to his audience, so any political correctness or even common politeness towards half of his audience went out the window because that anger bubbled out in his vocabulary. time and again he revealed himself.

i was so taken aback by the whole experience that early yesterday morning, i wrote an email to the union, outlining my concerns about the linguistic choices made during the day and how they made me feel - i felt it was dehumanizing and demotivating to be referred to as an "unemployed welfare recipient"  again and again, not to mention being called "it," as if i were a cow or sheep. if the goal is actually to get people back to work as soon as possible, then depressing them further by constantly reminding them of their unfortunate status isn't really the right approach. everyone who entered that room on wednesday already felt badly enough about the fact that they were there - they knew they were job seekers who needed the help that's available to them in the system for (hopefully) an interim period.

the manager of the office called me mid-afternoon in response to my email and i had a long discussion with him about these linguistic choices. and how insulting it was to be called an asshole by the instructor because i had joined that union (which is a general one and actually posits itself as being founded on christian principles. HA!) and not another one for academics. he didn't know me from adam, even if he thought he was being funny, it was totally inappropriate to treat me that way. i don't know, perhaps i reminded him of the ex-wife.

we discussed the changing reality of the market and of the clientele for these courses. there are simply way more ordinary people out of work in this economic climate. and the system is still behaving as if denmark had virtual null unemployment. of course, this is partially the legislation and not the union's fault, but the way in which they relate to and communicate with their changing clientele is within their control. people have a union because they want to have a support net to fall back on when times get tough. if that support net doesn't support, but condescends, even just linguistically, then it's not serving its purpose.


Anonymous said...

How interesting... Sorry you had such a difficult experience. Many people unfortunately don't have the intelligence to realise the power of words. Language fascinates me, and, like you, I like to listen to the subtext; you're quite right, it does reveal a lot about the speaker. Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

Maria-Thérèse ~ said...

I actually think it's a very good thing when people reveal themselves so obviously - better than if they seem nice at first and it's all a fake. You need to know whom you're dealing with. At the same time I'm sorry you had to meet such rude people, of course! We have a lot of unemployment here as well and I think people's bad sides come out more when they are pressured and perhaps think the situation is impossible and that they can't do their job, ie help people find work. Which of course is not an excuse to behave badly.

Sarah said...

This is so interesting and meaningful. I, too, am sorry that you had to meet rude people and be subjected to that. However, I commend you for writing this. I hope many see it. Bravo dear! You write brilliantly!

mrs mediocrity said...

This was a great post...sometimes you just stop and wonder what was that person thinking, and sometimes they only answer is that they weren't...
I really love your blog, and thanks so much for stopping by mine!

Zuzana said...

Great post. Well understood by a fellow foreigner in Denmark. I went and re-read your Wednesday post as well;you have my sympathies.
As a member of one union, I am about to get the hell out of it and join the union in your post ( I think it is that one at least). So I agree with you.;) The reason? It is cheaper. And non political. And they have great commercials. And I actually like that they have christian affiliations.;) It is better than political ones.
Have a lovey weekend,

Anonymous said...

My experiences with being unemployed in the US are bad too. They treat you like you are nobody. They accuse you of lying. They offer nothing much in the way of a good job.

I'm so glad I'm now retired and don't have to put up with it.

An Open Heart said...

Bravo J! This was lingquistically beautiful and something that hits home with me right now. Thank you, friend!


Anonymous said...

Aargh! I meant to comment on this ages ago, back when I still didn't have internet and was working only with my iPhone. I find the question of language fascinating and troubling, because so much of culture inheres in language. What does it mean, then, that English is so much the language of the public sphere, of politics and finance? What will that do to indigenous cultures? (I know that's not exactly the kind of language you were talking about, but that's immediately where my mind leapfrogged when I read this the first time, and not just because I now live in a country where languages mix and compete and inform disparate cultures).