As we all know the UAE is a tremendously cosmopolitan place. With all the different languages and nationalities it can be a bit of a minefield. Of course, thanks to the old empire, English is widely spoken and that’s a good thing for us lazy expatriates. But sadly not everyone has a good a grasp on the English language as say, Boris Johnson or Queen Elizabeth II. To some people it is not even a second language, maybe a third or even a fourth, and that means that it can be jolly difficult to understand everyone when engaged in riveting conversation.
You can only ask someone to repeat themselves twice. It has been well documented by several comedians of late that when you can’t understand someone you say “say that again”, then they do and you’re no better off. Then you say “sorry I can’t hear you” and your conversational opponent once more utters his or her sentence. By the third strike you just have to laugh or come out with a vague, all encompassing answer such as “Yeah, no” or awkwardly smile or my personal favourite, pretend my phone is vibrating and answer it, “Fire at the old school house!? Gadzooks I’m on my way!”
As a rule, then, I try to avoid getting dragged into small talk as much as possible. There is little more out there in the big wide world that makes me cringe as much as getting dragged into a conversation with a stranger who simply doesn’t get the hint that I would rather sit in silence more than anything else.
One of the worst offenders is a guy that works in the wholesome Hardee’s burger grot house in Khalifa Street, Al Ain. I don’t talk about my work on here very often but my job combines Motorsport and corporate hospitality. As such it is difficult to describe exactly what I do in a nutshell. So when asked by the man – who after 4 years I still don’t know his name – what I did I said “I work at a race circuit, like a sports club”. The look of vagueness on his face confirmed my worst fears that he hadn’t a clue and I would have to elaborate further. “Errr…” I continued “You know, like, err, Formula 1? Schumacher?” I added by using some interesting hand gestures. “Ah! Yes, Michael Schumacher! You teach Michael Schumacher?!” That was it, if I said no I didn’t teach Michael Schumacher then I would be forced to explain further, so I said yes. Apart from the fact that Michael Schumacher is 15 years older than me and has 7 F1 World championships amongst other copious world records to his name, apparently I am his instructor and mentor. So whenever I go into Hardees’s – which thankfully doesn’t happen as much these days – I am questioned about Michael’s progress. Leave me alone, I just want my Big Deluxe and curly fries. It’s insufferable.
Taxi drivers are also a pain in this regard. When I get into a taxi I want to sit in peace in the back with my nose pinched and my seatbelt fastened. Alas no. “Hello my friend! Hell you are today?” It begins “You from where?” usually follows. “London, England” I bluntly reply. “Landown? Where is this one? Norway?” he asks. “No, UK” I add “Aha Landon! You are Scandanavian, good?” It is at this point that I consider opening the door and hurling myself out, but sadly the doors are usually locked.
I was forced into an hour of hell last week when travelling home from Dubai airport at 4am. Things were going well until my taxi driver momentarily fell asleep and we found ourselves veering across the three lanes towards the guardrail. I considered letting him be before I realised that there was a high probability that I could be killed. So I reluctantly shouted insanely at my chauffer. He sprung back into action and we retook our course. I then had to suffer for the next 60 minutes by forcing small talk out of myself, just to keep him awake. Again my job came up and somehow he thought I sold cheap Chinese training shoes, and then, when asked which football team I supported, had to explain the entire English Football League system as my team aren’t in the Premier League, together with the geography of London. At one point I honestly felt like allowing him to doze off again.
My own penchant for politeness towards strangers has long since disintegrated, as you can plainly tell. My malevolence for small talk was born from a man that my friends and I accidentally – it turns out – got talking to some years ago. Ultimately he couldn’t speak a word of English. We then met him 3 months later and he had – in that time – learnt English and as an offer of thanks to us wished to provide us with 3 dead goats. All he wanted to know was where we lived and when we would be at work so he could pop round and leave the three mutilated carcasses on our doorstep. Hmmm….and then perhaps pick the lock and make off with our 54 inch flat screen. So we told him we lived on the moon. And he bought it.
Don’t get me wrong; things like “Good morning Sir” or “can I help you” are fine. I will either respond with a pleasantry of equal stature or inform you that I do or indeed do not need your help. But ask me where I am from and you have crossed the line. What you are now doing is bordering on harassment. How do I know you’re not an identity thief? Or a flat screen thief? Or an imbecile that thinks a pokey Englishman with dirty finger nails who eats grotty burgers at 2am is Michael Schumacher’s driving instructor?
Damn the empire. If we had just let the French rule instead, like Napoleon wanted, we wouldn’t be in this mess.