08 June 2010

Language and Culture: Time Estimates

When you order a pizza delivery in the United States, and you ask how long it will take, you get an answer. This answer is almost *always* "30 minutes." Is it really ever 30 minutes? Not in my experience. After a while, you don't believe that answer. So, you either figure it will take what it takes, or you get angry each time the pizza is late (and if it's also cold, well, look out!).

The pizza maker's pat answer is an estimate. You could say it is what it would take if all went well. It reflects a *desire* to provide your pizza in a reasonable amount of time.

We don't really have a way to quickly and easily express that concept in English. You can surround the "it will be ready in 30 minutes" with other phrases, but that would probably frustrate the United States customer even more.

The Spanish language, used where I live in Costa Rica, *does* have a mechanism to express this uncertainty. And, because the pace of life is so uncertain, it is used often. If the pizza is hoped to be there in 30 minutes, the speaker will use the subjunctive. You, the pizza consumer will (basically subconsciously) hear this uncertainty, and will not "count on" seeing that pizza in the near future. You will relax with a glass of Chianti. If, however, you are really hungry, and don't care for wine (whaaa?!?!?), you could then ask the pizza guy, using the indicative, "so, will the pizza be here in 30 minutes?" At this point, the pizza guy will probably answer in the indicative as well - what people from the United States would call "the truth." Pizza guy will think about all the other pizzas in the queue, the traffic situation, the state of the delivery guy's moto, and tell you that ahhh, well, the pizza "will be there in 45 minutes." He might also think about the fact that you seem *really* hungry, and tell you "3o minutes" - but he will also bump your pizza up the queue to make a little more certain you get it then.

If you are fairly new to the language, you aren't as likely to catch that nuance. You will probably be angry a lot.

Interestingly, if you are a native Spanish speaker, you also aren't likely to realize what is happening. You simply absorb what is conveyed via the subjunctive and the indicative. Both answers are "the truth," but mean quite different things - you have different expectations from each answer.


Julie said...

good grief, how embarrassing! I meant "subjunctive," not "conditional" - fixing it now...

Donna said...

Heh, that's OK, I need to google both terms anyway.
: )
Cultural difference on time, amongst other things, are fascinating.

Tim said...

I'm fluently bilingual and I've lived here so long that I've never thought about it. I did find your explanation very interesting, as I'm often at odds trying to explain how everything works "south of the border" to people who normally stay on the northern side... a native speaker instantly grasps the semantic and chronological dimensions as you so well put it.

Julie said...

Thanks Tom :-)
It was one of those "aha" moments for me in Spanish class - definitely stuck with me.

roughseasinthemed said...

Don't know why I didn't find this before. Your cultural difference posts are fascinating. Actually pizza is ready in quince minutos. So we walk down for it in ten, just in case ;)

But yes, hispanic culture is in a lot of respects, more laid back and more patient.


Julie said...

thanks Kate! I don't post here as much as I would like, so it doesn't pop up on the radar much. Glad you found me! (my last pizza showed up an hour late - I *almost* called about it :-S)