When I was preparing for this year’s NAI international conference in France, I received a certain amount of advice. “Oh, those French. They’re going to be so rude, especially if you try to speak French. They’ll be even worse if you just speak English, though. So snotty and superior. I’ve heard all about it.”
Spoiler alert: literally everyone I met in France, from the airport and train station in Paris to every passer-by and shopkeeper in Reims (a city whose name I managed to pronounce correctly perhaps 30% of the time), was friendly and welcoming. Strangers would event approach our groups, both in pubs and on the street, politely asking which countries all our fascinating accents come from and sharing their interest in our cultures. Does that mean there are no rude or condescending people in the country? Of course not, but like most people who visit the United States won’t be verbally assaulted by someone demanding they speak perfect “American” or leave the country, the mysterious French citizen turned out to be more often than not a perfectly normal, nice person. On the contrary, I and some of the other interpreters felt a strange twinge while using the bits of French we had learned because of our own cultural associations. In American pop culture terms like, “excusez-moi” are only spoken by either Miss Piggy or an insufferable snob (or an American comedian calling out an insufferable snob) in a sitcom or rom-com. Even attempting a credible French accent brings out an uncomfortable feeling that you’re being rude to the listener. What a sad realization to have, that I had spent most of my life absorbing the hallmarks of an entire country as something comedic and insufferable.
When I returned to the US and reported on the lack of rude French people, I was met with either surprise or the reassurance that this wasn’t the normal state of the people there, or that, “It’s really Paris where everyone is rude, not so much in the countryside.” So I checked with my friends who spent time in Paris. Nope, still no glut of sneering shopkeepers and haughty hoteliers. In addition to a wonderful conference that strengthened the bonds of heritage interpreters across the globe, we seemed to mostly just experience a wonderful country that had been through a great deal of turmoil and growth and is doing the best they can to process what that means to them as a people and on the global stage.
Thinking about how this relates to interpretation, I was being constantly reminded of an experience I had as a nature center coordinator in California, back in 2005. A field trip class of alternative high school students was set to arrive, and everyone from the education coordinator to the teachers warned me that they were going to be a miserable bunch. “Those alternative school, kids, you know.” Well, actually, I did know. My father was the founder of an alternative high school in the northeast the year I was born, and I was raised with this community. I saw some of the smartest, most generous and compassionate teenagers put down as low-lives, druggies, losers, and criminals by people who never took ten minutes to get to know them, frequently by school and city officials, at that. When that class walked in the door, I was waiting with a smile and genuine excitement to see them. Why? Because I knew these kids had been through more than most adults have, had learned to see more than people expect from them, and have been processing their lives in ways that most people think they’re incapable of. That when you gave them something to get into, to really sink their mental teeth into, they got into it. We had some of the best lessons and discussions ever that day. Their teacher was astonished, which was honestly one of the saddest moments of the day. She acted like this was a miracle. It wasn’t. I just had the experience seeing these kids as people, and of knowing that if you shove a stereotype at someone, it can be very difficult to see past that screen to the person beyond it.
Very often as interpreters, we don’t have the luxury of time to get to know our visitors, especially when they come as a class or touring group. Categorizations happen because that’s how our brains efficiently function to make sense of the world. None of us are evil for reacting initially to the categorizations our brains present to us when we receive a cue of an accent, an age-range, a type of outfit or look. What we are is responsible for our actions from that moment onward, though. “Oh no, a group of Brazilians are walking in; they’re going to be loud and pushy.” “Ugh, not another bunch of teenagers. Make sure you watch them extra closely, they’ll probably try to steal something.” “Oh, what a nice-looking bunch of suburban ‘gifted and talented’ students. I’m sure we won’t have any problems with them.” “Oh, uh, we have some ‘urban’ students visiting. How can I simplify this lesson so they get the basics, at least?”
Studies since the 1970s have shown that teachers often have conscious and unconscious biases towards or against students, based on race, ethnicity, gender, economic or social class, etc., and that those biased sets of expectations get imprinted onto the student, affecting their entire school experience and ultimately the opportunities they are exposed to by that system. It’s a hard, long road to undo the damage those sorts of stereotypes can do to an individual, but we can grasp every moment we can to do so. My hope going forward is to do my damnedest to catch those moments where my brain offers a stereotype instead of reality, and to push back against it. Interpretation is about finding that relevance, that moment of inspirational connection between the individual and the cherished resource in our care. How well can we do that if we can’t see the actual person in front of us?