Zen and the Act of being an American

One of the features of my job as a university professor is that I am always in an environment of young people: my classes are populated mostly by teenagers and twenty-somethings, and throughout the campus community, whether in the dining halls, library, department workroom, bookstore, or computer labs, UW-W students are at the counters.  One of my favorite places to go on campus is the Williams-Katchel fitness complex.  I have a year’s membership and work out in the spacious, well-appointed weight room nearly every day.   Every time I arrive, hand over my faculty ID to a student at the counter, who then files it away.  My customary encounter when I finish my work out and need to retrieve my ID card is to approach the desk . . .

Me: “Hi!”

Student: (Looks at me in anticipation, though without any verbal response)

Me: “Lencho” . . . . with an “L” . . . .  L-E-N-C-H-O . . .

Student: (Finds my ID card in the card file and hands it to me)

Me: “Thanks, you have a nice day.”

Student (optionally): “You too.”

There is something mildly disconcerting to me about this exchange, as it seems that it is hard for the student to actually play a verbal role in the conversation.   Although some of my colleagues think that students on our campus and across the nation are increasingly disrespectful and rude, I am reluctant to agree, and am more inclined to think that there is a linguistic explanation for this behavior:  in English, we have no simple grammatical program to allow different social classes to interact.   Like many European languages, Slovak has “T” forms and “V” forms, corresponding to when speakers are talking within their social network (= “T” form) or across the social divide (= “V” form).  Customarily, these distinctions are said to reflect the hierarchical relationship between speaker and audience, but my experience with American students makes me wonder if the honorific distinction in other languages not only instructs the nature of hierarchical conversation, but also in some crucial manner actually encourages it to take place.

My Slovak students could pop their heads into my office with the engaging yet deferential . . .

Slovak: “Dobrý deň, pan profesor, môžem vas vyrušovať?”

English: “Excuse me, sir, but may I disturb you for a second?”

Deference in English is not obligatorily displayed throughout the inflectional system of the language, as it is in Slovak (in the passage above, “vas” would be expressed “ta” in a conversation of “in-group” participants).  Instead, English requires  the use of titles and various rhetorical devices, leaving  an obsequious, groveling aftertaste that young people in the land where “all men are created equal” just naturally avoid.  In Slovak, class distinction is simply registered as it must simply to establish the full speaking context; there is nothing intentional or designing about it, hence no self-diminishing overtones.

Risking a certain amount of overstatement, Americans seem to live without role models or a sense of history.  This here-and-know, nobody-is-any-better-than-me, “zen” aspect of the American sensibility may have something to do with American can-do spirit, a sense of limitless possibilities, of personal innocence leading to a sense of entitlement.  However, knowing your place, and having a language which can readily express it in every act of communication is no small thing. There is an element of . . . . if not friendliness, maybe something akin to connectedness . . . that allows Slovaks across the age divide to talk to one another naturally, in fact, spurring them on to do so, and in the process, nurturing a kind of social involvement that I can only envy as a “Slovak living abroad.”