03 December 2010

On Culture and Offensive Language

If you've been to Spain or read anything I've had to say about it, you know that the Spanish have a special relationship with ham. In any predominantly Christian culture, taking the Lord's name is vain is not nice, but what happens when you have a Catholic country that is obsessed with pig products? I'll tell you what happens, you get a place where "Jesus Christ!" and "and a ham!" are equally offensive exclamations. When you look at how people insult each other, you see a lot about their values.

In Harry Potter, there's a scene where Ron calls Harry a loser and storms out. In the subtitles, he calls him inútil which is Spanish for "unhelpful." Just a few days ago, someone asked one of my teachers how to say "loser" in Spanish. She said there really isn't any translation, not because they don't have a word, but because winning and losing aren't important concepts in Spain (except when it comes to soccer). Calling a Spaniard a loser wouldn't make any sense to them; they'd just ask, "What did I lose?"

In America*, we're a capitalist society. Winning means success and losing means failure, laziness, and undesirability. Spain's socialist system means that helpfulness is more important than personal achievement.

Spain's socialism is visible on public transportation. While you have to swipe your ticket to enter the metro, the trams are set up so that it's up to you to validate your ticket once you're on board. In three months, I've never seen anyone come around to enforce the 50 Euro fine in place for unvalidated tickets, yet every single person who gets on the tram makes sure they pay for their ride. Half the signs at every stop encourage passengers to look out for the common good, saying "Valida tu título. Todos queremos un buen servicio," "Validate your ticket, we all want good service."

The other half of the signs have a more Big Brother feel.

"Validate your ticket, we're all watching you." Pros and cons to every system, right?

It seems like something that's culturally ingrained, but then I see people jump the turnstile to get on the metro. When I think about it, though, it's mostly at night and they're almost always drunk teenagers and young foreign tourists. People here take their three different recycling bags up to 10 blocks to put it into the right bins. 1st graders take themselves to school on the metro. Barcelona is a city without dog parks because dogs are trained so they don't need a leash. Responsibility is taken seriously so that life is easier for everyone.

In unrelated idiomatic expressions, if someone asks you on a date and you turn then down, you "give them the pumpkin."

*I know Harry Potter is a British book and movie, but if the number of advertisements I saw in the UK are any indication, competition is alive and well there too. That's nor to say that people in Spain don't compete or aren't driven, but it seems that after years of Franquimo, the culture is more willing to value diversity (meaning there's not one universally accepted continuum of success and failure) whether it's in the political structure of the autonomous communities and languages, rights for minority groups, or respect for jobs that are not as high-powered but necessary for the city to function.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

'inútil' means 'useless'