Assert yourself!

The term ‘assertiveness training’ cropped up the other day with my Algerian pilots’ group, to whom I teach English. I tried to explain what this meant, and I didn’t do it especially well. They had interpreted ‘assertiveness’ as being synonymous with ‘bossiness’, so I tried to explain that it was in fact a positive quality, but I’m not sure they really got it. In any event, the idea that people charged for training in what they took to be imposing your will on others struck them as something of a swizz. I've learned that Arab blokes are rarely wrong, and asserting themselves is simply what they do.

I envy this sort of easy self-confidence up to a point, although it can be very irritating. It comes of never having been challenged, of never having met an opposing moral viewpoint, or even imagining one could exist. Once, when the topic of freedom of speech arose, they said absolutely, they were staunch advocates, with the understanding, naturally, that it should entail no criticism of the government or religion. I think I called an early coffee break at that point.

I lived for fifteen years in a culture where most people would probably think the idea of ‘assertiveness training’ pretty bloody silly - indeed, pretty redundant. Greeks thrive on conflict, and you had better learn to handle it. Neighbours who have comparatively little happening in their lives and heads will periodically cause a stir about other people’s rubbish, cooking smells, television or kids, just to spice up the quotidian a bit. Most of my neighbours were very kind, but I have friends and colleagues who had no end of bother with theirs. On the day of my arrival to take up my first job in Athens, the woman who met me at the airport told me that the best way to deal with combative neighbours was to shout louder than they did, as nobody was really listening anyway. That job involved calling back those people who had called us to express interest in teacher training courses. After that, I would be expected to keep on calling those who had not committed themselves. Are we not pestering people, I would ask. Won’t they resent this?

‘No, no,’ the director said. ‘In the Greeze, if you want that people do something, you mas poosh them, you mas poosh them, you mas poosh them!’communicating through the form of her instructions the lack of faith that anybody really is listening to anybody else.

One example of Greek-style assertiveness may stand for many. On the day that the drachma ceased, after three millennia or so, to be legal tender, I sat in a branch of the National Bank with a heavy carrier-bag full of assorted coin salvaged from pots, jars, pockets and corners, waiting to convert them into Euros. This meant the difference between the cat and me eating or not eating that night, so I had to wait, and it was a long wait. Taking a numbered ticket and waiting to be called to a cashier was a relatively new system at that time. Earlier, those with louder voices and sharper elbows, usually little black-clad widder-women, got served first.

At three o’ clock or so, when I still had about fifty people ahead of me and as many more behind, there came a plump, upright bull-dog of a woman in a scarlet two-piece, enormous sunglasses and a necklace like a string of tennis balls. Ignoring the ticket dispenser, she advanced straight to the first cashier and initiated her transaction. This provoked a rumble of protest from the crowd – what is this, wasn’t she ashamed, disgrace, take a ticket, Kyría mou*, like everyone else! But the lady was by no means ashamed, and she rounded on the company and said with magisterial indignation:

‘I have my mother out there in the car, and we have just come from Ayos Savvas!’ This provenance she enunciated most emphatically, separating the syllables: ‘A-PO TON A-YO SA-VA!’

Ayos Savvas! Saint Savvas, the cancer hospital! To Athenians, the name is as a fall of frost on a summer’s afternoon. The lady managed to convey that it was we, sitting there bored comatose on our benumbed arse-bones, that had wronged her, and not vice versa. By protesting, we were sadistically prolonging the suffering of Mrs Queue-Jumper senior, whose life hung by a thread out in the car. Of course, it may well have been the case that Mrs Queue-Jumper mère was in the pink of health and at that very moment at home enjoying iced coffee on her balcony, but pleading a sick relative in Greece will almost guarantee the instant capitulation of any who oppose your will, as it did here. There was muffled, grudging acknowledgement that the woman had a case, and she turned back to the cashier and concluded her business. Before leaving, she turned and called a short, reproachful efharistó ('thanks') to all of us still waiting.

It took me several years to feel able to call across a crowded (or empty) taverna to ask the waiter for the bill. It still goes against the cultural grain, but Greek waiters don’t perpetually scan the tables looking for brief glances and raised eyebrows the way they do in England; either you sit there forever, or you holler. I will never develop the sheer effrontery of the lady in the bank, and although at the time I could have throttled her, I admit to reluctant admiration of that sort of balls.

Kyría mou = madam, with a touch of ironic formality here.