Well, I had an experience today that’s been botherin’ me a bit—in fact, it’s nearly one in the morning, and I’m up because I realized that my feelers are hurt and, consequently, my mind’s run amuck on me. Today a gentleman (I’m using the term very loosely here) came into the Center looking for his paper. He spoke with a light accent, and it was apparent to me that he’s an ELL student. I was sitting at the front computer, and he walked up to me and said, "I’m here to pick up my paper." This statement struck me as a bit strange, because students don’t generally drop-off their papers—my mind instantly registered "email consultation." When I asked him if he’d sent in his paper via email, he looked a bit perturbed and again stated, "I’m here to pick up my paper." I thought that maybe he’d forgotten it at the Center or something, so I asked him if he’d already worked with a consultant on the paper. This question must have really irritated him, because he took a step closer to me and said, "Do you speak English? I want my paper." Yeah, I know—my feelers withered right there. I was actually pretty shocked at the bluntness of the comment and at the tone of his voice when he said it, and, being the sweet smart-@$$ that I am, replied very kindly, "Yes, I do speak English. Just one moment, and I’ll ask Mike if he knows the whereabouts of your paper." As I rounded the desk, he snatched up today’s email consultations and began rummaging through them, looking for his own paper.
This student was much more cordial with Mike, and luckily Mike was able to figure-out where his paper was. It turns out that he’d left the paper with Zach, and it was finished and waiting in Zach’s cubby for pick up by the student. The situation wasn’t complicated, and all the student would have needed to tell me was that he’d consulted with Zach previously, and he’d left the paper at the Center for pick up later. I’m sure that Zach’s cubby would’ve been the first place that I’d have checked for it. What I couldn’t figure out was why he’d completely shut down communication with me; it was like he was Unwilling to give me the information that I really needed in order to help him locate his paper. Of course, the first thing that ran through my head was the way I spoke to him. He’s an ELL student, so I was afraid that maybe I inadvertently spoke to him differently than I would have to a native speaker. I’ve rewound and paused my actions, my words, and my overall attitude with him, and I don’t believe that I talked to him any differently than I would have a native speaker.
The student spoke English very well, and so there was no language barrier there; never once did I struggle with the accent or the syntax of his words. Even as I listened to him talk with Mike, there was no struggle on my end to understand what was being said. This got me thinking—maybe the communication blockade was do to my questions….
I worked at a hospital for a little over a year, and, in that time I worked with hundreds of folks learning to speak English—sometimes a non-native English speaking patient or family member would come to the wrong department looking for assistance. There were many patients that spoke very little English and/or were completely unfamiliar with how the departments work pretty independently from one another. Therefore, I’d have to ask many different questions in order to get them to where they needed to be. Most of the people that I assisted were friendly and just wanted to get to there destination quickly, but every once in a while I’d get someone at my desk who had a slip of paper with a doctor’s or a patient’s name on it. They’d simply hand me the paper and want me to point them in the right direction (hospitals so don't work that way). They’d get frustrated when I’d have to ask multiple questions in order to figure their situation out. From behind that desk, I'd done the ‘question around the situation dance’ so often that I knew why these ELL patients would get frustrated with me; sometimes I’d have to ask the same thirty questions to the same patient twice in one day, for two totally different problems . I’d certainly get tired of it—I’d assume that they would, too.
Anyway, maybe that’s what happened today with that gentleman. Maybe he assumed that "picking up his paper" was something that I should be really familiar with. Maybe he misinterpreted my questions, and considered them offensive because I should know what he’s talking about. Maybe he thought I asked the questions only because he was a non-native speaker. OR Maybe he really just bonked his head while getting out of his car on the way in and was in bad mood. Or, maybe he just dislikes short women—who knows? Nevertheless, today’s experience is going to have me thinking twice about the amount of questions, and the way in which I phrase those questions to writers (ELL or not). All right, I’ve typed enough, and I do feel a bit better. I’m going to bed now.