On being laughed at

Recently I wrote of an interaction with an individual who thought I needed to learn to speak Spanish. I wasn’t terrifically happy.

But I’m game, and I resolved to try out my very very bad Gringo Spanish, when necessary. A week or so ago, I had the perfect opportunity, a patient and sole family member, neither of whom spoke English. No easy interpreter available. It’s my muy-bad Spanish or pantomimes.

I tried it out, and though the patient and I were doing okay, the patient’s significant other thought my Spanish was Laugh Out Loud hilarious. Literally. To the point it was distracting, and more than a little bit irritating. Infuriating, really.

Really, I’m trying to communicate with my patient, in a language quite literally foreign to me, and it’s amusing to the audience, and they feel no reason to hide their amusement, to temper their reaction with the realization I’m trying to help. Just laugh at the doctor trying to help their relative.

Now, I have a good sense of humor, and laugh at myself easily. I don’t have a lot of tolerance for ridicule, though, and that’s what I felt this was. Ridicule for trying to speak a language I didn’t, while neither of them would try speaking my language.

I’m a pro, and the patient got good care, but now I’m not really interested in extending myself to communicate outside my comfort zone.


  1. John J. Coupal says:

    I’d say that the attitude of your patient to your more-than- generous efforts to communicate was indicative of someone who is also an illegal alien in the United States of America.

    Am I correct?

  2. GruntDoc,

    Illegitimi non carborundum. You, your kids, and your grandkids didn’t learn to walk without a fall or two. But, it is hard to take one on the chin like that.

    Semper fi,

    SSG J

  3. Doc Heidrich says:

    I agree, laughing at oneself is easy, but being ridiculed is a bit much. I wonder what they would have said if you had been able to tell them that if they didnt learn english, you could not help them, and walked out.

  4. I can just see the funny, potty-humor subtitles.

  5. Yes they are laughing all the way to free medical care, fraudulent social security numbers and ID cards, jobs without taxation, food stamps, disability, welfare, free public education for their kids, and any other goodies federal, state, and local governments want to give out

  6. This whole thing leaves me feeling a little queasy. I’m with Doc Heidrich in the comments …

    My parents came from Canada, and had to learn English. I was raised speaking French at home … and I had to learn English. My family and relatives didn’t move down here and proclaim: “Nous sommes içi maintenant – apprenez le français!” (We’re here now! You’d better learn French!) We were taught to fit ourselves into the already existing scheme, and do our best to make things work.

    The arrogance displayed by the attitudes of some immigrants – especially those not going through the proper channels – is ultimately going to rebound on them. The reason the US is great is because it is a homogenous melting pot. We’re able to overcome our differences and work together … using those differences to build our strength, rather than create weaknesses.

    Selfcenteredness and determined insularity are like defecating in a gracious host’s living room.

  7. Christopher Henry says:

    Unfortunately typical of the ingratitude of a class of people who have little respect for so many things here except for what can be obtained by fraud, deception, evasion and contempt for our laws. Even if they were legal, their behavior was inexcusable. You could see they were unable to communicate in English and were attempting to communicate with them on terms they might understand. And instead of at least politely suppressing their amusement at the mistakes you might have made, they laughed right in your face. They tipped their hand as to the seriousness of their complaints–and the lack of urgency– if they had time to be doing that. You were all too kind about it. If the interview was so funny to them, I would have had a hard time believing their complaint merited any kind of urgent evaluation or care.

    We have a national administration that thinks this kind of lawless exploitation of local resources is OK to ignore as long as certain business interests are satisfied they can get their migrant labor cheap, legally or not. I can’t help but think this will be a growing source of political discontent, especially in the borderlands. If I thought the government of the U.S. was derelict of its duties to protect my community from those who were unlawfully taking scarce community resources
    from the institutions I pay taxes to support, I might think it was time for a change in leadership.

  8. It has been my experience that that kind of attitude is the exception not the rule. Generally when I am trying to communicate in my very limited but improving Spanish patients are helpful, often teaching me proper grammar, or vernacular. Sure I get an occasional laugh usually when I say something that turns out to be otherwise inappropriate due to poor pronunciation. You had a single bad experience, it is certainly not enough to draw any definite conclusions and I doubt you have ever let that stop you in the past.

  9. Whoa, Grunt Doc! (and many of these other commenters) Chill!
    If that was the worst translingual experience you will have, you are a lucky hombre indeed!

    But you pick yourself up, dust off the damage, and get back in the ring.

    Maybe you’re on your way to a second career as a standup comic in Mexico…

  10. Bad Shift says:

    Here’s what burns me: I find out 3/4 through the interview that their English is far better than my Spanish, but instead of helping me out, they insist I fumble through their language for 10 minutes first. But this is one example among hundreds of lack of courtesy among all ethnicities that choose to receive care in the ER.

  11. Aerospace Genius says:

    “if they didnt learn english, you could not help them”

    That’s the key phrase to learn to pronounce correctly in Spanish.

    “Si usted no aprende inglés, No puedo ayudarle.”

  12. I lived in another country for a couple of years and basically lived in another language, mostly awkwardly, in a rural area. Most people were incredibly generous about my Spanish, but sometimes I totally cracked people up with some very common errors.

    It taught me a lot about how to treat people who don’t speak English in my country, especially since many of them don’t have the advantage of a college education or special language training that I had had.

    You had a rough interaction. You weren’t really hurt, just laughed at. And you’re an adult, who’s had the advantage of a postgraduate education. You’re in a position of power in the interaction. And being laughed at really isn’t that injurious.

    I bet you have 20 good interactions with non-native English speakers for every bad one, right? Take a deep breath and focus on those.

    (I don’t mean to sound too critical; I know this is just a mini-comentary on your blog.)

  13. Grunt Doc – out-freakin-standing. Good Job. I can imagine how frustrating that would be, as I’ve been in a similar situation where my attempts to communicate weren’t so highly regarded. I thought I was doing the other folks a favor by making my best attempt at speaking their language.

    Let me tell you about another scenario – I have worked with tons of Chinese folks and other Asians who are notoriously stereotyped for their difficulty speaking English, particularly the L’s and R’s, as many people well know. Many of them are very sensitive to this, and I have seen people storm out of meetings just because they thought their speech was being ridiculed.

    Granted, the scenario is reversed in your case, as you are the one going out of your way to communicate with them in a language you don’t speak that well. However, the patient’s sig. other is no better than any “American” that makes fun of others’ attempts to speak English.

    In any case, the point is that you made an honest effort, and should be commended for doing so, especially in light of your initial hesitation. You can’t let the combined societal “You’re coming here, you should learn our language” sentiment and the actions of one asshole deter you from doing the right and proper thing.

    And I’m sure your patient sincerely appreciated your attempt.

    In short, I don’t think it’s a good thing to let your political sentiment carry over into the way you practice your craft. Medicine and politics don’t mix – consider transplant surgeon Dr. Bill Frist, whose amazing ability to diagnose Terry Schiavo from video, and inability to remember that routes of HIV transmission (apparently it’s transmitted through tears after you become Senate Maj. Leader) are highly questionable, considering he’s a graduate of Harvard Medical School.

  14. wow, let’s just call it what it is–there is some racism surfacing in this comment thread. Yes, it can be frustrating when communication is difficult, and certainly we (doctors) are sometimes treated with derision and an astonishing lack of respect by patients of all sorts of colors, languages, and class–particularly in the ED. But in my experience as a pediatrician in an ED in the Southwest, ANY attempt I made to speak any amount of Spanish was appreciated and reciprocated by an attempt on the patient’s part to speak some form of English. This is one example of one incident, and who knows what the heck you said–I once told a 4 year-old patient that her dog was very pretty when I meant her HAIR. It was funny. Thank God she corrected me or I’d still be saying that! Not every Spanish-speaking patient is out to cheat the system of our hard-earned tax dollars, and they are not all illegal. We don’t get to say “if you don’t learn English, I won’t help you” because we are DOCTORS. We chose this profession to help our fellow humans on this planet, not just those who speak our language. Sorry for the diatribe, and the late entry, but I just couldn’t let this go.