I don’t think of myself as a scary or intimidating person. But with one word I can strike terror into the hearts of people in many countries throughout Europe. And it doesn’t matter what that word is or what language it’s in.
Last evening was a perfect example: I was having dinner in the hotel restaurant here in Budapest. Like most hotels and hotel restaurants in cities throughout Europe, the staff speak English—at least enough to do their jobs. The restaurant was empty for a while, so it was just me and the two waiters. One waiter, let’s call him Neo, had served me coffee earlier in the afternoon. He spoke excellent English.
The other waiter had seated me then skittered off and busied himself with the task of removing one fork from each place setting on each table. When Neo emerged from the kitchen the frightened waiter whispered something to him. Neo came to give me a menu, then joined the other man in the task of fork removal. I quickly made my choice and then watched as both men worked their way closer and closer to me. The frightened waiter worked his way to me, skipping my table and moving on without once looking directly at me. Neo, seeing that my menu was closed, came and took my order.
The thing I had done to so frighten the other waiter was this: I spoke English. The poor man was terrified that I might speak to him in English. I have seen this reaction many times in Italy. I am fluent in Italian. But even if I speak Italian, many times people will panic when they hear my English-accented Italian, fearing that I will switch to English.
And guess who is the most frightened of all: my own English students. Some students who stopped coming to me for English lessons years ago will get that look of terror in their eyes when they see me enter a room. When (if) they speak to me, they will speak only Italian. Some won’t risk speaking to me at all. In non-classroom settings, I have never insisted that my students speak English with me. I prefer my social interactions to be relaxed and stress-free. But most of them have never given me the chance to tell them that—in any language.
That’s not to say that all my English students are afraid of speaking English. Many brave souls will speak English with me. A few will actually seek me out for English conversation. But those lazy ones who didn’t want to study, instead wishing that I would just open their skulls and pour the language inside. Or maybe they want me to find the USB port in their brains and download the English language file. Sorry to say, it simply doesn’t work that way.
One time I saw that terror reaction from one word to an American boy in his early 20’s. He was sitting beside me in an airport restaurant in the US. He asked where I was going, and I said, “Milan.” He asked what I do there. At the word “missionary” I thought he was going to throw up. He quickly finished, paid, and left. I’m not going to speculate on why he had that extreme reaction, but I do pray for him from time to time.
Then today at lunch the tables were turned on me. I had ordered in English, and so enjoyed my lunch (chanterelle mushroom soup—yum!) that when the waiter took my plate and asked how I liked it, I answered one of the dozen or so Hungarian words I know: finom (delicious). He answered something in Hungarian. And every time he came back, he spoke to me in Hungarian.
When the frightened waiter from last night came to start his shift, my lunch waiter whispered something to him. Now I was the one with the terrified look. Here’s how my imagination translated that whispered sentence: “You’re wrong, Laszlo, she does speak Hungarian! She’s been holding out on us!”