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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘french’

First Impressions: How You Say What You Say

Thinking about that charter school for inner city boys where the study of Latin is mandatory…

In my day job I work with folks of various backgrounds, both in terms of education and upbringing. In all walks of my public life I come in contact with an even broader swath of humanity in all regards. I routinely travel up and down the social, economic and educational ladders at work and at play. For the most part, with everyone I meet the language we all speak is English. I live in Cleveland, Ohio, USA after all. Our English, however, is hardly the same.

While we cannot truly escape our origins, as we cannot truly escape our genome, we can choose how we interact in the daily mechanics of society regardless of origin. For better or for worse this begins with how we speak. That old saw, you only get one chance to make a first impression, is especially true when you speak, and especially important because for the most part you can choose not only what you say but also how you say it.

There’s nothing new or striking about this concept, either. You can think of it as verbal situational awareness. You would (hopefully) speak differently to a priest than you would the surfer dude sitting next to you beyond the break. On the phone with the cable company should sound very different I think than on the phone with your BFF. All speech is by definition qualitatively different than a text or an email because speaking implies hearing; speaking and hearing involve the inclusion of inflection, tone, and tempo. Really basic stuff.

Why, then, is it so brutally common to hear such poor English? Poor grammar, improper word usage, a situational tone-deafness? This doesn’t even begin to touch on the concept of working vocabulary (BTW, the person with the largest working vocabulary I’ve ever met is responsible for my  little CrossFit thing). Once upon a time one heard much about “Proper English” or “The Queen’s English.” What happened?

In English we do not have the French equivalent of “Tu” vs. “Vous”. No lazy man’s way to “polite-up” our speech. A certain unearned familiarity is too often presumed. We take way too many liberties with grammar, and frankly we too infrequently make the effort at “polished” English when it’s time to do so. That first impression thing is incredibly affected when you open your mouth to speak, on the up and the down sides. It is equally jarring to hear the word “ineluctable” from a guy in faded jeans and a baseball cap turned backwards (up) as it is to hear “me and Joey are gonna go…” from a guy in a suit and starched collar (down).

The stark reality is that there are no barriers to the “up” version of English. There is no genetic, social, or economic barrier blocking the acquisition of the ability to speak well, and by extension to acquire the situational awareness to know when it is vital to do so. All that is required is the effort to learn that version of English that we know as “proper”, and the effort to learn when. Those young men learning Latin at that charter school are off to a great start. It’s not necessary to speak like this all the time. You can choose to “let your hair down” so to speak–my love for the versatility of the “F-bomb” is well known in certain circles–but a lack of virtuosity in the English domain is a choice.

There are many aspects of a “first impression” over which we may have little control. Don’t choose to let your English be one of them.

Tales From Bellevue Hospital: Saving A Target Part I

There are only two kinds of people in New York City: targets, and people who hit targets. At Bellevue Hospital we took care of the targets.

I’m not sure if they still use these terms, but I take full credit for the original use of “target” to describe the victims of violence who came to the Bellevue Hospital emergency room. As an ophthalmology resident I was on call every fifth night, and because I lived outside of the city I actually have to spend each on-call night in the hospital. The bad news, of course, is that I didn’t get to sleep in my own bed. The good news was that I developed a more friendly relationship with the ER attendings, fellows, and residents, as well as the nursing and clerical staff. I also developed a very easy relationship with the prison guards from Riker’s Island. The term was coined, and the game was set when I sauntered into the ER in the wee hours of some morning and asked out loud to no one in particular: “okay, where’s the target?!”

Whether it was primary care or specialty care clinics like our ophthalmology division, Bellevue Hospital was where people who fell through the holes in the safety net went for their medical care. Pretty much everyone received care that they couldn’t receive anywhere else, so it was easy to feel good about the contribution that you were making, even as a resident. It would be difficult to pick out the person I helped the most over my three years in New York except for young Jean, the target from France who I saved one night while covering the ER.

It was around midnight and I was seeing an older woman who was complaining of flashes and floaters. A Latina, my patient spoke not a word of English, so I was delighted to make the acquaintance of her daughter, a lovely woman roughly my age who accompanied her mom and acted as translator. I excused myself when the phone rang. “We gotta target from Rikers for ya Darrell. Not a word of English.” Send ‘em right up was my response, pretty confident that my new friend the patient’s daughter would be able to translate for what I expected to be a Riker’s Island prisoner who spoke nothing but Spanish. Imagine my surprise when a rather thin, soft, artsy looking boy of 20 or so from France shuffled into our waiting room, his right eye black and blue and swollen tight.

The target part was pretty much standard fare, punched in the eye, but everything else was totally out of place. The visual was just wrong on more levels than I could describe. My new best friend said she knew little bit of French so I sent her out to chat with Jean while I examined her mother’s retina. Our French lad was clearly not much of a threat; the unwritten communication between the doctors and the writers Island guards told us as much, the guards chatting between themselves at the other end of the room. These two particular guards, a man and a woman who were not part of the normal Bellevue Hospital crew, would actually become a pretty important part of saving this target.

I finished up with my older woman, reassuring both her and her daughter that the flashes and floaters were nothing to be alarmed by, and that they would eventually go away. I asked her daughter what she had discovered, and with a sad, slow shake of the head she started to tell the story.

Jean, our target, had been in the United States for less than 24 hours. He was to visit friends, and had arrived a day earlier than a bilingual friend, another young Frenchman who would be the tour guide and connector for a group of kids in New York City. Rather naïve and not the least bit street–savvy, Jean decided that he would go on a walking tour of the city around Penn Station. This was back in the mid-1980s, and Jean came from a very fashion conscious family. It was cold in the city and he was wearing a fancy, team logo jacket, the kind the gangbangers in the city were wearing at the time. Sure enough, he happened upon a group of gangbangers very early in his travels.

The leader of this street corner group told Jean that he admired his jacket. He admired it so much, in fact, that he thought Jean should give him the jacket. Jean, of course, had absolutely no idea what the gangbanger was saying;  he only spoke French. The gangbanger pulled a knife and threatened Jean. Amazingly, Jeann took away the knife and stabbed the gang banger! When the police arrived and asked what had happened Jeann stood mute while the gangbanger screamed that John had tried to kill him. Unable to tell his side of the story–the street cops didn’t speak French– he was arrested for attempted murder and sent to Riker’s Island.

Now jacketless but still otherwise fully clothed, our target found himself in a holding cell at Rikers. It turns out that he was also rather fashionably shod, wearing brand-new leather sneakers that were all the rage at the time. You know, the kind of sneakers the gangbangers wore. Not too surprisingly his cell mates, at least some of them, were gangbangers. One of them approached Jean and proclaimed his admiration for these brand-new sneakers. Jean, of course, had no idea what he was talking about, seeing as he still didn’t speak a word of English. When it became clear that the gang banger was demanding his shoes Jean refused. The gangbanger cold-cocked him in the right eye and another target was off to the Bellevue Hospital emergency room.

With the exception of this fascinating story taking care of Jean was otherwise standard target fare. After prying open his swollen eyelids I was able to determine that his eye was intact and that no damage to his vision would ensue. But now what? What do I do with this thin, soft, French speaking 21-year-old all alone in New York City. I decided that I would help this one. If I ever made a difference, I would make a difference for this one.  This target, the recipient of violence he neither deserved nor sought, this was the one target, that one patient I would help outside of the professional help I gave everyone else.

How? What could I do? What did this young man need? There it was! What this young man needed was help telling his story. I was in the middle of the biggest hospital in the biggest city in America. Surely I could do this. Little did I know…