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Postcard From...Madrid


Did you ever get the feeling that Madrileños were barking orders at you? "Go there!" "Wait here!" "Let me finish!" "Move to the other line!" The ubiquitous use of the command form of everyday verbs never quite dawned on me until one recent day when I began to teach my four-year-old daughter to be polite.

"Don't say, 'Give me an apple'," I told her. "Say, 'Would you please give me an apple?'." It was a simple lesson, except that it occurred to me that while helping her to fit into the English-speaking world, I was possibly setting her up to be eaten alive in the Spanish grammatical jungle.

Tourist guides seldom prepare you for the rudeness gap between cultures – perhaps because you first need to understand the language well enough to pick up on it. But once you do understand Spanish, a trip to the bar or market can be harrowing. To get a waiter's attention and ask for a beer, you need to say, "Oye, or Oiga, dáme una cerveza", which seems to translate literally as: "Hey listen, gimme a beer." There is no "please", no "thank you".

This abruptness extends to all forms of life, from the bar to casual conversations at home. Teachers speak this way to their students. Of course, nobody takes offence here. They don't consider themselves rude. "You're too sensitive," my Spanish husband tells me, shaking his head. So what will happen if I teach my four-year-old to say, "Would you please pass the red shovel next to the sand castle?" She'll sound charming at home, but in Madrid will the poor thing be laughed out of the playground?