Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sorry o, I'm coming!

Sometimes Nigerians say the opposite of what they mean. As a result, if you don’t know what they mean you can be quite confused, and potentially respond in ways that aren’t culturally appropriate.

Now, of course I know these “opposite” sayings are related to culture, but they’re still amusing to me as an outsider. English is a fascinating language, and the variation in the English language between countries where it is spoken is incredible. As I spend significant time with people from all over the world, I learn more about these quirks and eccentricities. Here in Nigeria, I have noticed that there are a number of expressions that connote the opposite of what they denote. Here are a few.

“I’m coming”
People say this when they’re walking away from you. You’re having a conversation with someone at work and they get a call from another coworker to help them check on something real quick. As the person walks away from you they say, “I’m coming.” No, but you’re going. Perhaps you’re coming back though?

“I don’t mind”
People say this when they actually do mind. You’re getting soda from your fridge and you ask your friend if they want some, and they say, “I don’t mind.” What they mean is, “Yes, I’d like some.” Or you ask a friend if they want to come over and watch a movie this afternoon and they say, “I don’t mind.” What they mean is, “Yes, I’d like to come.” Where I’m from, this expression comes across either as “I don’t really care one way or the other” or as “I would prefer something else, but I’m not against doing this. However, in Nigeria it’s a culturally appropriate way of saying you’re interested in something without being overly assertive or direct about your opinion/preference.

“I’m on my way”
People say this when they have not yet left their house. You’re having a friend over for dinner and you told them to come at 7pm. It’s 8pm and the person has not yet arrived, so you call to check on them. Your friend responds, “I’m on my way.” Yet in the background you can hear their TV playing the evening news and their little brother screaming. Yep, they’re on their way.

“Sorry o”
People say this when they are not actually sorry. You buy something from a shop and it breaks the first time you use it. You go back with your receipt to return it, and when you explain what happened the shopkeeper says, “Sorry o” and shakes her head in disappointment. This means you’re definitely not getting your money back or a replacement item. But she’s sorry, so that makes up for it, right? In a different way, Nigerians ‘apologize’ for loads of stuff that is not their fault. You cough? The Nigerian next to you (whether or not you know him) will say “Sorry o.” You trip walking down the sidewalk? The person walking near you will say “Sorry o.” You scratch at a mosquito bite? Your friend will say “Sorry o.” I believe this has more to do with the idea of “sorrow” over something than apologizing for it. Maybe along the lines of “mourn with those who mourn.” Lots of underlying culture for sure, but I’ll leave it at that.

“I won’t take much of your time”
When a pastor says this at a beginning of a sermon, you know you’re going to be there a long time. Pastors who preach for a shorter amount of time rarely say this, but the ones that preach for over an hour usually seem to say this. When I hear this phrase, I now inwardly groan and mentally prepare myself for a long haul. I suppose it’s all about perspective though. In light of eternity, an 80-minute sermon isn’t much time, right?

“I’ll be rounding up soon”
When someone says this (especially a pastor at church), it’ll definitely be at least another 20 minutes. This is similar to the previous one, in that people who actually are going to finish up quickly don’t say it, but those who still have much to say/do seem to use this phrase almost as an apology. As in, “Sorry o, I know it’s been a long time and you all are tired, and even though I still have quite a bit to say, I’ll be rounding up soon.”

“Come and eat”
People say this when they’re eating and you’re not. Except they don’t mean that you should come and join them. It’s just a courtesy. You definitely should not ‘come and eat’ if someone says this to you, it will be very offensive. You also should not say, “I’ve already eaten” (which I have done), as that is also offensive. You should say thank you and continue on with what you are doing. Caveat- sometimes people actually do mean to come and eat, like when dinner is ready at home and mom says “come and eat.” Then you should actually go to eat. You just need to know the difference between when the person means to come and when the person means not to come. Easy enough, right? 

These are a few “opposite” phrases I’ve encountered along the way. I’m poking fun at them, but all with a total appreciation of the differences in how culture influences language and in full recognition that an equally amusing list could be written about quirky things Americans say. Many of which would involve baseball references that make absolutely no sense to most people outside our country (e.g., out of left field, home run, in my wheel house, three strikes you’re out). In fact, I say many an American English idiom and get blank stares from many a Nigerian. Between Nigerian idioms and American idioms, I’ve had some pretty entertaining conversations. All in a day’s work living cross-culturally.  

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