One of the greatest parts of any Thanksgiving gathering for my clan is the chance to eavesdrop unabashedly on a crazy number of conversations taking place in every corner of the house when you’ve got 25 or so relatives and a few of their friends crammed together for a feast.
It’s like a cross between platonic speed dating and your third-cousin-on-your-mother’s-side’s wedding, where you catch up briefly on the big events in each other’s lives.
We’re quite the mix, so these precious conversations are a chance to see vicariously encounters we’d likely never have ourselves. My extended family includes the lead singer in a rock band, a retired career National Guardsman, a second grade teacher, a couple of master mechanics, a retired woman who used to facilitate military training exercises, an afterschool program manager, a concessionaire, an IT guy, a property manager and a bunch of others with jobs that are every bit as engrossing, but harder to explain. You never know who you’ll find among the friends. We’ve hosted law enforcement, healthcare workers and a movie stuntman skier, among others.
We’re also colorful. Our gatherings always include whites and Native Americans and often African Americans and Hispanics. We’re also a (mostly) jovial mix of varying degrees of conservatism and liberalism and libertarianism, with some middle-of-the-roaders floating from room to room. I even have a couple of relatives who keep their political leanings entirely under wraps. They are currently my most beloved kin.
But my favorite conversations involve the hotel maid, because she reminds me that I should behave better, always, with everyone I meet. Showing someone a little respect doesn’t cost much, and it matters.
Not long ago, I asked her about work, and she regaled me with the story of a hotel guest with whom she had quite a lengthy conversation about local sightseeing. Then the woman switched the topic to the details of how she’d like the room cleaned. As she gave instructions, she began to speak more slowly. And a few sentences in, she asked, “Would it help if I spoke to you in Spanish?”
Actually, it wouldn’t, as the hotel maid is not Hispanic, as she noted with a smile that was mostly sincere. “She and I probably speak Spanish about equally well.” Not to mention that they’d been talking for some time perfectly well in English. That the woman would assume her race based on her occupation or hair color was irritating.
It reminds me of the day we tried to figure out why my daughter, then a junior in high school, had been placed in advanced conversational Spanish. It turned out her counselor saw a girl with brown hair and brown eyes and assumed we spoke Spanish at home. Some of us do, but at the level you speak when you’re busily trying to master the difference between preterite and imperative verb conjugations, ala second-year Spanish. It’s not our native tongue. And speaking of native, people make assumptions about my husband, too. He’s a Native American who was adopted by a Missouri farm boy and a German immigrant when he was a tot. Who could guess his story correctly? Or mine? Or yours?
But my favorite hotel maid tale is a recent one. She tapped on the guest’s door and was told to come in. When the two middle-aged women staying there saw her, they started gathering their credit cards and money. More bizarre, they discussed her aloud while they did it — in front of her.
“Relax. I don’t think she looks like she steals.”
“You can never tell. I’ll feel better if I remove the temptation.”
Your choice, but do it quietly. And if you’re going to make unfair assumptions based on your perceptions of someone — we all do it, sometimes on different issues and our own bizarre criteria — do have the decency to mute the narration.