Person A says to Person B – “You speak English so well.”
If Person A is an exchange student learning English from an American voice actor, person B. Then the statement comes off with a true air of respect. The statement acknowledges the command of the language and the speaker’s ability to enunciate and form the various sounds of the English language with such fluidity and competence. It is an affirmation.
If A is a native speaker saying this to B, a student of the English language, it could be a recognition of the hard work that goes into learning English not just as written, but spoken language. It acknowledges English is a difficult language to learn and that B speaks it very well – as a student? relative to a native speaker? compared to other students? as opposed to another language? You speak English better than I had expected? OK, there is some ambiguity here.
If A is a White American and B is a Asian American, then what does that communicate? Well, it could be that A assumed that B was not a native speaker. Or that A knew something about B that would beforehand that would have indicated B perhaps had a problem that would inhibit an ability to speak English well. And I suppose with the various waves of immigration to this country, it is probably not so easy to discern an Asian from an Asian American. How would you know visually someone should or would speak English well? This is where the intent and purpose of the statement cannot help but be lost.
But the statement, again depending on who the speakers are, can convey an expectation that wasn’t met, even if pleasant. And that statement divulges something about the way we look at each other. And in some cases and in some uses, it shows how we look down or up to one another.
What about this one – Wow. You’re really good at basketball!
That’s the one Jeremy Lin is facing right now. The first Asian American in 60 years to play in the NBA is getting some major minutes while playing for the New York Knicks. And the surprise here, again, while pleasant, belies that sense of dismissal and what Tim Dalrymple reprises as “The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations.” The opening line of Dalrymple’s wonderful post, “Sometimes compliments are the worst insults.”
This is what gives people who challenge the stereotypes and media projections a chip on their shoulder. It’s what makes tokens tired and women resentful.
Here’s a lesson: Don’t assume the stereotype – Question it first. Remember that some compliments reveal that you think of yourself as the judge, not just an observer or participant.