Lying in a Foreign Tongue

It’s a sin to lie. It’s wrong to utter untruths. It’s dreadful not to be forthcoming and forthright. Yet small lies are the lubricant of civilisation, perhaps particularly in cross-cultural communication.

I am not referring to the entirely selfish foreign language lie I tell several times a week during my commute. When I am worn out from the day’s exertions and in search of the comfort of home, I am often accosted by people bearing brightly coloured buckets or petitions or both. They try gamely to engage me in conversation for the purpose of securing a donation for their charity, political cause, worthy social activity etc. What I would do if I were a better person is explain carefully and respectfully that I do give money to a number of charities and causes but only after making sure I understand them better than I can something just explained to me by a stranger when my mind is on the glass of claret that awaits me in my abode. But I am not that good a person, so I say something like “Nkibode Engleesh”.

If you wish to try this out, be aware that the hard N sound at the beginning is important (the rest of the first word can be safely varied, I find), because it obviously connotes a “negative, no, not” meaning to English-speakers. How you say the word “English” in this thoroughly dishonest phrase doesn’t seem to matter much in my experience, as long as you pronounce it incorrectly. Remember to look perplexed and slightly embarassed as you say it. Invariably, the person pressuring you to give money will be chastened, maybe even apologetic, and let you continue your journey unmolested.

Some of you upon reading this disclosure of rank lack of candor will no doubt have the impulse to race to your keyboard and accuse this website of being a haven for moral midgets. Please don’t. In the first place, we know that already and in the second, all of us here come from broken homes, circus families and the like, so have some mercy.

I seem to have wandered a bit from my original point, to which I will now return.

When I am communicating with someone whose primary language differs from my own, I not infrequently find myself lying either to make the other person feel better or simply to move the conversation along. Years ago I was taking Spanish language lessons in Barcelona, during which time I lived in a rented house with some other students from different countries. One was a Colombian women whose English, incredibly, was even worse than my execrable Spanish. She was a nice person, but also tended to get upset if she could not understand what someone else was saying, to the point that she would persist to the point of intense mutual frustration with questions of clarification rather than let the matter drop.

I complained to her one evening, in my clumsy voicing of her native tongue, that my tooth was hurting and I needed to see a dentist.

She replied “I heard you were a professor. I didn’t know you were a professor of dentistry”.

I clarified: “I’m a professor of psychiatry, not dentistry. I was saying I am in pain and need to see a dentist”.

She paused and looked anxious, and then said, with evident concern, “Is it lonely being a dentist? Is that why you are so sad that you need to see a psychiatrist?”.

“I *don’t* need to see a psychiatrist and I’m not sad. I need to see a dentist because I have a tooth ache”. I opened my mouth and pointed to my tooth for emphasis.

“Bulimia? Do you feel you are too fat?”.

“No. No!” I said, probably a bit too loudly.

She reached out and put a reassuring hand on my forearm “It will be all right professor, the psychiatrist will help you”.

She was so kind and well-intended that my desire to be honest was overcome by a desire not to seem unappreciative. And so I lied through my sore teeth.

“Thank you for your support. I know I will be okay as long as I can get to a psychiatrist. It’s just so boring and unfulfilling being a dentist, staring at people’s teeth all day in that cramped little room.”

She smiled warmly and patted my arm again, gratified by my prevarication at a level which no honest statement could have generated.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “Lying in a Foreign Tongue”

  1. You can also convey a lack of comprehension with a puzzled look and saying “Ngye pryeskuvyea.” Just sort of swallow the g and you will be fine.

  2. Keith: It’s a sin to lie. It’s wrong to utter untruths. It’s dreadful not to be forthcoming and forthright.

    Since we’re having aphorism week: “Truth is the bully we all pretend to like.” 🙂

    1. Yeah. One thing you learn fairly quickly if you have Asperger’s is that most people who say they want to meet someone who is really honest do not want it nearly as badly as they think they do.

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