Kinyarwanda is not a polite language by American standards. It lacks the wealth of polite phrases and sentence constructions that English contains: may I, could I, can I, would you mind, should I, please. Each of these phrases suits a slightly different kind of interaction and indirectly conveys anything from obsequiousness to passive aggression. No such possibilities exist in Kinyarwanda: the politeness of any request depends solely on a speaker’s context and tone. This absence of polite signposts makes us uncomfortable: we hesitate before posing our requests in what feels like a patronizingly commanding way: I want two avocados, I want water to wash my clothes, give me change. We find ourselves the objects of such commands with even greater discomfort: ‘take food,’ our host mothers say at dinner time, ‘look up this song,’ our host siblings ask afterwards, ‘give an example,’ our Kinyarwanda teachers demand in class.
This difference between English and Kinyarwanda becomes particularly apparent when Rwandans speak to us in English. In translation, their decidedly un-polite way of speaking seems condescending. My friend Sydney did everything in her power not to betray irritation when her 14-year-old host brother approached her one Saturday evening and declared: “Tomorrow you will go to church.” Church is a multi-hour affair that many volunteers avoid in their precious, very scarce free time. She knew – as we all do, by now – that this curt imperative was not not meant as it sounded: he was likely trying to find out if she intended to go with them. Sydney responded masterfully, with firm, inscrutable tact: “Can I pray in my room in English instead?” Her host brother laughed in response; the next morning, she avoided their lengthy church service with no further questions, comments, or commands.
We have to remind ourselves that the way we’re spoken to, especially in English, is not as rude or insensitive as it sounds to our American ears. It’s just incisively direct: a no-fluff distillation of essential information to be communicated or obtained. I catch myself avoiding what I perceive as Kinyarwanda’s inherent impoliteness by prefacing everything I ask for with: “can I?” I probably sound ridiculous at the market, when I ask if I’m able to buy 5 tomatoes, or at home, when I ask if I’m able to have more water. I’m beginning to tire of this clunky extra word that makes my sentences longer but adds little to the actual content of my words. On most days, anyone can tell from my expression that I’m attempting to bargain with good-will or respect my host mother’s generosity. On other days, anyone can tell that my patience is running short, regardless of all the ‘can I’s’ I produce to persuade them otherwise, or just deceive myself. Sometimes when I speak, Rwandans scan my face as they wait for me to spit it out, to cut the unnecessary helping verbs and say what my expression has already revealed in part.
From the moment I met her, my Kinyarwanda teacher’s gaze has penetrated the layers of polite language that conceal the inconvenient or unnerving truths I’ve only half-convinced myself to share. She looks me in the eye and asks a striking – though never intrusively probing – question that cuts to the heart of the matter, however big or small. At this point, I know better than to skirt around my thoughts or explain myself euphemistically. I simply tell her how it is and I think she does the same; both of us respect the topical boundaries the other sets as we speak, honestly, about one thing or another. My counterpart in Nyagahanga is similarly sparing and reliable in her words. I always knew what she wanted and considered best, and never worried that she was saying one thing but thinking another against her better judgment just to indulge me. She makes her thoughts and wishes known kindly, and I trust her because they match her gestures and demeanor.
Kinyarwanda’s lack of a concretely polite lexicon has led me to speak with Rwandans much more sincerely than I speak with most Americans in the States. There’s no forest of may I, could I, should I, do you mind, please, can I to sift through, fret over, and misinterpret. This begets a kind of clarity that lends itself to genuine interaction: there’s no veil to lift, no pretense to uncover, and less artificiality to overcome with time. There are fewer ways to prolong small-talk and extend superficial conversation, fewer means of saying one thing but meaning another. I’m sure my limited knowledge of Kinyarwanda (3 verb tenses, a small vocabulary) has contributed to the remarkably direct quality of my communication here in Rwanda; even so, I can’t help thinking that this language reflects an honest culture in which it’s better to stay quiet than fill a room with pleasantries of little substance, better to state what you want than confuse your interlocutors with potentially misleading phrases.