Initiating Conversations with a Spoiled Identity: The dissonance of language use and race in Germany and Thailand

I taught Erving Goffman’s book Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity in Germany last month. One of the things that came up was how students are culturally and linguistically German (i.e. German is their first language) but racially “different” manage their identity as a non-white. In other words, they deal with the dissonance between a linguistic and cultural identity, in the context of racial beliefs about what it means to be German.  They do this in the many conversations initiated with strangers. In Goffman’s description, such a person who does not meet cultural expectations has a “spoiled” identity which is “discredited” because they cannot avoid presenting it. In this case, the expectation is that a German speaker has white skin—conditions my German students could not exercise in a Germany which has received waves of immigration since 1989..

As a management strategy, both students admitted to generally intiating conversations with a German accented “hallo” to signal that their preferred language is German. This signal helps push the dissonance away from fears of potential conversation partners that they will need to deal with a non-German speaker.

Now that I’m in Thailand, I find myself using the same trick—going up to a cashier, waiter, or other stranger who might be terrified because they think an embarrassing linguistic situation  (i.e. English) is approaching, To manage the situation, I assert a very confident “sawasdee krub” to signal that I speak Thai despite my discredited identity as a white, and that they do not need to speak English with me. In other words, I am also managing an identity that is “spoiled” relative to the vast majority of people who are Asian looking.  The identity I have with Thai strangers is assumed to be English speaking tourist. As with my students in Germany, this habit of initiating conversations is a sub-conscious pattern which I developed after 3-4 years in Thailand. But indeed, this is a way of stigma management when the dissonance of race and language preference do not match.

In contrast, when speaking German, I avoid initiating conversation, because there is a way to hide behind my race. As long as I keep quiet, and use signals in everyday transaction, I can get by quite well in a German environment, and never raise the anxiety levels of cashiers, wait staff, or others that I come in contact with. My stigma is only, in Goffman’s words, discreditable, not discredited, as it is for my students in Germany, and me in Thailand.

Reference

Goffman, Erving (1963/1986) Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. Touchstone Books.