As a child, I hated being asked questions by grown ups. Often they asked questions about your family business that they would never have had the temerity to ask of one’s parents. My father in particular, though a courteous man, only appeared in public in full armour, bayonets fixed as it were, so nobody was going to ask him any questions; my mother could tactfully deflect queries. It used to annoy me intensely that as a little girl one was deemed a softer target. I would have had no difficulty in boldly repudiating any question, but for the dread imperative Not to be Rude. It took me some years to work out an unanswerable response. ‘I am afraid I don’t know; but I’ll tell my parents you’ve asked me and I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you.’ I only had to say this once and I got such a dirty look in response; and then, as is the way when you’ve found the answer to an awkward question, nobody ever asked me anything again.

I still don’t like to be asked questions. Any phone call or enquirer at the door is doomed if they start off with a query. In response to one salesman’s opening question, from some script no doubt, I said, quite politely, ‘I don’t wish to answer questions. Perhaps you’d like to state your business and I’ll see if I can help you.’ To which (I thought) perfectly reasonable statement he slammed shut his book, said, ‘I don’t have to put up with this,’ and huffily departed!

Some questions are not meant to be answered. How are you? It’s not to be taken literally. Fine, is the only acceptable answer followed by the reciprocal, how are you?

Some questions cannot be answered. John and I sat at a picnic table beside the beach at Hastings waiting for our friends Elizabeth and Jonathan to join us. A young Turkish man, here to learn English, approached us, and enquired, May I sit here? (There were other tables free.) We assented. It turned out he wanted to practice his English, and we had a long and interesting conversation about the language, manners and customs of our countries. (His mother, he told us, looking at me with slight disapproval, kept the house and cooked and cleaned, not like you… I considered arguing; I did all those things, what did he mean – but in fact I knew exactly what he meant.) Finally he thanked us for talking with him and departed. We never told him that in asking to sit at a picnic table already occupied by a family he broke every possible convention of the country and that his action had been utterly taboo.

Friends once asked me at what point I became irritable about questions, and when I said, I don’t like being asked my name, they laughed. It’s not that I mind telling it, I just don’t want it to be used. Why do they need to call me anything at all? Not that I indicate my discomfort. Some American woman on a plane once asked my name – no, of course I can’t remember hers – and then proceeded to bandy it about like a football in practice. There wasn’t a sentence that didn’t contain it. I felt like asking for another seat.

We dined with American colleagues (in England) who addressed the waitress by name. ‘You Brits should take the trouble to remember the server’s name,’ the man observed. ‘Why?’ John asked. ‘You get better service.’ John doubted that very much. Our guest did mention that they had been briefed before coming to the UK that we didn’t like people making free with our names, but he didn’t believe it, and we, being British, just smiled and said nothing. We didn’t tell him that our son, then a student and working for a large (American) catering company at one of the London airports, pursued a policy (unbeknown to his employers obviously) of active discrimination against anyone who summoned him by name. Forced to wear a name badge, and even though the name he gave, although one of his names was not the one used by his intimates, he found the employment of his name so irksome that he almost invariably wore the name badge of a colleague from another shift. There were plenty to choose from, but his special favourite was Walidh. Every British customer who bothered to look at his name badge understood right away the exact state of affairs, but then they had never been going to address him by name in the first place. Tired, jet-lagged American customers were liable to become confused. ‘Tell me, son,’ one red-necked male asked him one day. ‘Is your name really Walidh?’ Our hero merely nodded and pointed to his name badge. ‘You sure don’t look like a Walidh’. With true British evasiveness, at this point the ‘server’ asked, ‘Can I get you anything else, sir?’ (with the unspoken message that he, Walidh, was employed to serve food and drink, and not to answer questions about his nomenclature.)

Ah well. Customs of the country. It’s meant in friendship and should be accepted in the spirit in which it’s offered. But to friends who come from a culture where it is polite to use people’s names, don’t be offended when we don’t use yours. It’s not that we haven’t bothered to learn it. We’re respecting your privacy and not presuming on our acquaintance.

And as for not liking to be questioned, that depends on who you are. There’s all the difference in the world between the caring enquiries of a friend and the spurious and insincere curiosity of others. We’ve all complained to our intimate friend after a meeting with some mutual acquaintance: Of course she’s only interested in herself. Never any question about me…

One could always try the Scots all-purpose greeting, Hey Jimmy! But I hasten to add, lest I lead anyone into temptation, that it’s not exactly a friendly salutation. More of a challenge to combat, really. It doesn’t mean you think their name is James. And don’t, on any account, address a Scotsman as Jock. I won’t answer for the consequences. They won’t be good.

English as she is spoke. It’s harder than it looks.


About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

5 Responses to HEY, JIMMY!

  1. Eugene Windsor says:

    Indeed! Sadly, the commonest answer that you’ll hear nowadays to the question “how are you?” is “I’m good” rather than “fine”. I read a book about words by John Humphrys, who had come up with the rather grumpy response, “let others be the judge of that”…

  2. I attach a link to the “Parliamo Scots” page that Alex finds very useful when we return from Lawrence’s parents house. I tell her the skill is to know the local and be able to use it with accent when required.


  3. adhocannie says:

    Yes. It’s interesting to see the spelling of words like ‘nyaff’ (invariably attached to ‘wee’) – ie a worthless despicable person. I’m not sure such words HAVE a written version. And is it ‘boke’ or ‘ boak’ (to vomit.) I’m always fascinated how Kevin Bridges (a clever, knowledgable fellow) creates his act in the Glasgow vernacular, for all that he can speak an impeccable Queen’s English. (Of course Queen’s English wouldn’t be so funny.)

  4. adhocannie says:

    My son in law, a Glaswegian living in Glasgow, advises that Hey Jimmy! is neutral salutation, with neither deference nor aggression in it. Since obviously I have never been hailed in this manner, nor employed this phrase, I bow to his superior knowledge. I was never able, as some children are, to speak the vernacular in the playground and the queen’s English at home. I just spoke the way I speak now. This resulted once in a tough little boy (name: Joe! I do remember!) giving me the vote of approval after 6 months in a Glasgow school. “When you cam here first,” he told me, “A thoct ye were a richt wee snob. But ah sees noo yer no.” Why thank you kindly, sir, (I din’t say!)

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