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One of the great things about the study of languages is that it can lead you to ideas that you otherwise may never have had. Or it can make you think, “how cool is it that there is one word for an idea that in my language you would need a whole paragraph to describe?” Since Spanish is the language I study, I’ll give a couple of example from that tongue. Conticinio is that part of the night when everyone has gone to bed, but nobody has yet gotten up. I’ve awoken in the middle of the night and thought to myself, “this is the conticinio, I don’t hear a single sound.” Desengaño is another good example: to escape from your deception and finally see things clearly. On the other hand, English has words with no Spanish equivalent. There is no single word for “loiter” in Spanish, but that doesn’t mean that nobody loiters in the Spanish-speaking world.

I’ve been thinking lately about the word ninguneo, and its verb, ningunear. Basically it means not to pay attention to a person, to ignore, scorn or underestimate them. But these definitions are inadequate, for what it literally means is take somebody (alguien) and turn them into nobody (ninguno). Ideally, we would have thick enough skin to not care if someone acknowledges us or not. But in most cases, I don’t think it is so.

Asian cultures have codified this: think of the Japanese custom of bowing. The bows are deeper and more repeated if the person is deemed to be worthy of respect (that’s my reading). In India, the namaste is a recognition of the divinity within.

If, in a lapse of judgment, you do something that you probably should not have done, it can have a negative impact on your social standing. Humans are primates after all, and we show it in our behavior. We are very conscious of our status and our place in the social hierarchy. Male baboons know exactly where they stand in their troop. They can rise up by beating up a baboon that is higher up in the pecking order than they are. (It’s not so easy for us, so we have devised far more subtle yet nefarious ways of screwing each other over in order to move on up.) Female baboons are not ranked like male baboons, but they are fully aware of the male rankings and are more inclined to mate with the higher-ranked males than with the lower-ranked ones. Are we no different? Granted there are exceptions, both among baboons and humans. There are mensches of noble character who are equitable and fair in the treatment of their fellows in all realms of the animal kingdom.

I think it is fair to say that we all want to be acknowledged; that when somebody who obviously knows us treats us as if we were invisible there is some psychological pain, slight as it may be.

Sadly, we sometimes even choose to “ningunear” ourselves:

- Who’s there?
- Nobody, just me.

We do this either because our inferior status shames us, or more likely because we want to avoid conflict.

Granted, some people are immersed in their own thoughts, or have trained themselves not to be keenly aware of those with whom they cross paths. In these cases we might perceive a sleight, a ninguneo, where none was intended.

And yet, I think it should be remembered that people need to feel acknowledged, and since it is free, easy, and painless, we should make a point of acknowledging them. No need for effusion or exaggeration, simple recognition is all that matters.



April 2019



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