My doorbell rang. There stood my former flatmate. “Where’s my money?” she demanded.
She came into my building and screamed at me for a good long while. I couldn’t breathe. I stepped outside for fresh air. It was raining. She followed. She screamed at me some more. In the rain. Even in the complete abject shittiness of the moment I appreciated the poetry.
Then she switched to English. And suddenly everything was so much easier. I could breathe again. Fucking hell. I actually think we could have avoided the past half year of misery with each other if only we’d spoken English.
In English she asked me what the problem was (still yell-y). And in English it was easy to be honest. I said, “I don’t like being yelled at. When I’m yelled at, I get defensive, and I’m less willing to cooperate.”
As the rain came down on us and the rental contract in my hand withered into a sheet of damp, I capitulated. I just had no emotional energy left to have anything more to do with her. Then I looked her in the eye and apologised – not for my behaviour, which was well within the confines of the law and our contractual relationship, but for the shitty situation that we’d both had to suffer through.
So what was the problem?
How much of a role did language-based power inequality play in the death of acceptable social behaviour between us? Was it German itself, the language that the world makes fun of for being so yell-y? Was it her German, which was better than mine? Was it my German, which was simply incapable of letting me express myself? What was it?
Should we have switched to English earlier?
It was my pride that prevented us from doing so. My hyperawareness of the power advantage my English grants me often results in me rejecting my mother tongue altogether in favour of a foreign language that I have not mastered enough to be able to fully operate like a normal compassionate human being. It wouldn’t have made everything awesome, but it might have staunched the gushing flow of good grace we had with each other just a little.
“Life in a foreign country is hard enough as it is. Why make it harder for yourself?” said someone to me once, or wise words to that effect. We were discussing speaking German in our daily lives. She – a non-native German speaker – meant that while there are merits to speaking a foreign language and that we shouldn’t give up just because it’s difficult or when we’re in unfamiliar situations, we shouldn’t force ourselves into bad situations on an overly embraced principle of “when in Rome”-type integration. For the sake of our mental and emotional health. Coincidentally, this former good friend and I had a falling out that I deeply regret that was due in large part to me being overly critical of her English word use. English wasn’t her mother tongue.
As I think and type this, it occurs to me that I’ve fucked up bad in both German and English. The universe is telling me that the problem is me, not the language. Fine. But my points may still stand on an abstract level.
I agree with her sentiment. Adopting a foreign language is not black and white – it’s not like you have to speak it at every single opportunity or else you’re a lazy entitled foreigner, especially a lazy entitled English-speaking foreigner who hell yeah will milk the power advantage of speaking English for all it’s worth. In some situations it might simply make more sense to speak English. In others it could preserve your mental health. That’s not insignificant given all the ways living in a foreign country and in a foreign language grind you down.
I guess my point is, know thyself. Be sensitive and aware of approaching breaking points. Leave your bravado at the door. Act on principle until it no longer makes sense to do so. Does that make sense to you? I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if other people have as many failed interpersonal relationships as I seem to be having. Two is a coincidence and three’s a trend, they say. I’m beyond three. So it’s me, then.
At least next time – and god knows there’ll be one – I’ll hopefully be smart enough to switch to English.