x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Follow expressions to make sense of a Greek conversation

The protocol Protocol is a Greek word. It comes from protokollon, meaning the first glued sheet of papyrus, which was a sheet of paper at the beginning of a text that guaranteed a document's authenticity.

Greeks just love to talk.
Greeks just love to talk.

Protocol, the title of this column, is a Greek word. It comes from protokollon, meaning the first glued sheet of papyrus, which was a sheet of paper at the beginning of a text that guaranteed a document's authenticity. Reader, take heart - I mention this fact merely to illustrate a point: that Greeks have been conditioned to be proud and confident about their origins and that they are imbued with extrovert traits, which result in a majority of the population being opinionated, brash and loud.

Yet these qualities need not be intimidating. As Mediterraneans accustomed to centuries of invasion and foreign threat, Hellenes are often comfortable with confrontation and rarely get perturbed by public outbursts. It's one of the things to look forward to when sitting at a cafe for hours on end (a national pastime). There will inevitably be loud and lengthy arguments over a football game, what to eat for lunch and whether Niko should have married Tina or her sister. These arguments often reach crescendos of hyperbolic proportions, but do not be disturbed if a sudden explosion occurs next to you - the pair that are being pulled apart by the police will be having coffee shortly thereafter.

Arguing is psychologically cathartic for the Greeks. One day a few years ago, a man climbed aboard a bus in Athens and humbly asked the driver where he was going. The driver, cigarette hanging from his mouth, gestured roughly. "Into the pine trees. Where do you think I'm going?". The incident sparked a five-person intervention. Amid shouts of righteous indignation and clicking teeth, the healing began. The passenger explained he couldn't see well. The driver opened up about his troubled marriage. Two women suggested ways to revive the marriage, and which cousin the passenger could go to see for his troublesome cataracts.

Much of this psychological complexity is passed over by foreigners because the dialogues happen in Greek, which can either sound like mellifluous Spanish or a woodpecker hammering into marble. If language confuses, subtler cues are often ways of understanding public discourse. There are three facial expressions that convey most sentiments: "yes" is a tip of the head downwards; "no" is a flick of the eyebrows upwards; and "I don't know" is the eyebrow lift plus the mouth in a frown. Don't be put off if a question doesn't receive a reply. Look closer: you might be writing off the answer as a particularly bad tick.

For instance, a regular patron sits in a café, watching football. You're lost. You approach, unable to ascertain if the man is watching you from behind his sunglasses. You say, "Excuse me?" He turns. "How can I get to the metro, please?" The eyebrows lift, the mouth stretches into a frown. You may read this as contempt for your inability to speak Greek but he's merely saying, "I don't know." He turns, nods to the busboy, who might either be coming over to help you or to refill the man's coffee, and you're unsure until he does both. A loud noise startles you; the patron seems to be yelling now, whether at you, or the TV screen, or for the garçon, you can't tell. But then he gestures to the seat next to him. Soon, the two of you are gesturing wildly to the screen as you shake your fists at the game, and you bask in the knowledge that it's just another ear-splitting afternoon in Greece.