Sick as a dog

Posted on Posted in Translations

It's bubble-wrapNo posts last week – not because of the UK’s Royal Mail strike – but because of that little virus thing going around town right now. Aching joints and back, headache, earache, sensitive to light, temperature, cough, blocked sinuses, nausea, lost appetite, short temper, where’s my mum?

I had a splendid week planned with not one nor two but three rather important projects to deliver. And then I was sick. I’m sure the ‘flu hits people differently but I was flat on my back on the couch for 72 hours. And I was suffering. I felt rotten. Really miserable. And I remember a telephone call with the office. I was asked how I was and, being British, my initial, “let’s not even think about that question for a moment” response was to say, “Oh…not too bad”.

But I stopped myself.

I thought about how I felt and decided to tell the truth: “Actually, I’m really, really sick. My temperature’s over 39. I ache all over. I cannot get comfortable. I feel really bad – to be honest, I’m suffering. I can’t possibly come to work today. I’m really sorry”.

Now getting that off my chest didn’t change a thing and I certainly didn’t feel better but it left me reflecting on the socio-linguistic “handshaking” that so often goes on and whose purpose is to lead the parties towards a point where the real action can start.

And it left me wondering what should happen if one person really wanted to know how the other was doing:

Person1: “Hi. How are you doing?”
Person2: “Fine. Not too bad.”
P1: “No, really. How are you?”
P2: “Fine. I’m fine.”
P1: “NO! Tell me how you’re really doing!”
P2: “I JUST DID! I’M OK”.

When I meet people, it’s automatic to ask after their health but I am expecting a standard reply – they’re going to be fine because they’re at work / in the bar / at the supermarket.

If they were ill, they’d look ill and my question would be more “Hi….are you OK? You don’t look too good…” and I’d expect a response to confirm that.

So I make an assumption based on the way you look and where I meet you. So I’m not asking to really find out how you are. It’s a conversation starter; an ice-breaker; a salutation. And then other questions came to me which fulfill a similar function:

How’s the wife/husband?
How’s work?
How’re the kids?

In some cultures, the greeting can be translated as “Have you eaten?” and of course, the expected (and only) response can be “Yes, heartily. I am sufficiently sophonsified and adequately nourished. Thank you.” But if you thought that poppycock, you could simply sit them down to a meal anyway. Which, politeness would dictate, would be eaten thus confirming the host’s position: you had not eaten sufficiently otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to eat this meal.

The more I thought, the more I began to see this type of language at work. I call it linguistic bubble-wrap. Whilst it ultimately gets discarded in favour of the precious object which it protects, this bubble-wrap is very important and, indeed, without it, how could I deliver my message? It’s a very necessary step in the whole process.

And bubble-wrap is so flexible and useful. It’s so tactile and who hasn’t played with it endlessly? – popping all those wonderful bubbles? Bubble-wrap’s great!

So the next time I’m asked how I’m doing, expect a cheery, “fine. I’m fine”. Because it’s bubble-wrap, you see.

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