May 24, 2008, 1:44 pm

Jive Talkin’

Gee, you think they could look a little happier about getting their cap!

Nevermind that the ceremony is being held in Dracula’s castle next to Transylvania General.

The one getting capped looks like a pin was just stuck into her scalp and the one on the far left looks like she’s happy about it!

You can’t see it, but the nurse actually doing the capping is holding bobby pins in her mouth. Tres unsanitary!


The San Francisco Bay Area is a very diverse place. Many languages are spoken, and I happen to be competent in one of the more common latin-based languages you will find in this area.

Meaning I studied it for four years in high school and use it on-the-job every day.

Oh, I’m not fluent by any means but I can get through a full triage, tell a patient what is happening to them, how it will feel, give full discharge instructions and answer basic questions in full, grammatically correct sentences.

I’ve also discovered that many patients know quite a bit of English, but are not confident enough to try using it. They don’t want to make any mistakes. When they see I’m making the effort to speak their language, they are more confident in trying out their English. They do great and we wind up encouraging each other.

It can be a lot of fun, and I enjoy it.



What do you do with a group of people you know speak fluent English, but pretend they don’t?

I’m not talking “Gee, I would like to converse in my native language as I am more comfortable.” I’m talking, “Let’s screw with the nurse and doctor for the hell of it.”

My colleagues familiar with this multi-generational group told me to expect the “act”, but I really didn’t think anything of it. I figured I would just speak their language to the best of my ability



The entire time I’m in the room, speaking their language, the group is smirking. Either my version of the language is really off the wall and there is a reason to smirk, or they are playing me like a fiddle.

Talk about “rosin’ up the bow”!

Now, I know they know English, but they don’t know that I know they speak English. I notice that the patient innocently looks all confused at the most basic statement and plaintively looks to the man and says “What?”.

The man repeats what I said back to her! Word-for-word. In their language. Exactly like I said it.

Ah, so the game is to pretend not to understand anything I say, English or not!

Okay, as long as the patient is getting the information she needs I don’t care if it’s English, the native language or Morse Code.


But then the ante is upped. On my next visit, no one in the room is acknowledging that they understand anything!

I begin to notice breaks in the “other team’s” strategy.

First, the patient says “thank you” in English. That was nice, she really was thanking me for the ice chips. Except… before I left, one of the younger folks ask her “Why are you speaking English?”, only to be hit in the leg by another family member.

Ah, young grasshopper. You have just arrived and are new to the game, you have not yet learned I can speak your native language and understood what you just asked your elder.

Strike One

Next, the patient needed something from the utility room. Grasshopper comes out and asks for it in perfect English! (Remember the underlying principle of the game, NO ONE in that room knows English.)

Strike Two.

The bases are loaded, the last runner is up.

I am about to give pain medication to my patient and I tell her that in her language. She understands that without any translation or repetition. Amazing how that works! But then in a voice without a hint of an accent she emphatically yells out:


Strike frickin’ three, lady.

Game’s over.


Now I know for sure that I have been played for a fool. They did everything but put their finger and their thumb in the shape of an “L” on their forehead (with apologies to Smashmouth).

So I figure I’ll just clear the air.

I walk in with the discharge instructions and announce, with a smile:

“I know for a fact everyone in this room speaks English. But, since I like to speak your native language I am going to give the discharge instructions in that language. Now, I may mangle some words so don’t laugh too hard, but it’s good for me to practice. If I get stuck on a word, feel free to jump in and help me out.”

They went from smirking to sheepish in five seconds. I gave my instructions, they helped me with the words I got stuck on and when I asked questions in plain English they answered them.



The moral of the story?

1. I’m waaaaay too trusting and willing to give others the benefit of the doubt.

2. Most people are willing to at least try to speak English. If you can, and you don’t I would file that under “obnoxious”.

3. The next time you try to play a registered nurse, know that he/she is not as stupid as you think.

4. For Pete’s sake, if you are going to play games get your game plan together before you come into the ER.



  • James

    May 26, 2008 at 12:01 am

    That was funny! I employ the reverse strategy. We get lots of Spanish speaking patients. I know enough spanish to understand them pretty well and to speak in very basic conversational language. But, usually, I pretend not to understand any. Their english is usally much better than my spanish anyway and we’re all much happier.

  • Sharon

    May 26, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    I love the Language Line. No problemos! I can fill the gap with my broken Spanish but that’s about it. No more 12-year-old boys translating for women with gynecologic or obstetric problems! Yahoo!

  • Shane

    May 27, 2008 at 7:59 am

    Yet another reason why I’m not a nurse. I totally would have messed with them and started telling them things that were obviously wrong to see how long they’d keep it up 😀

  • therapydoc

    May 27, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    But that’s a great quality, giving others the benefit of the doubt.

  • therapydoc

    May 29, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Wasn’t it a doctor named Boris who said, Trust no vun?

  • NPs Save Lives

    May 30, 2008 at 8:37 am

    Oh too funny! I had to have a Spanish women’s husband translate “doggy style” the other day. I understand more Spanish than I speak and I am working on it daily. They are a nice couple and the husband speaks English pretty well and enough to help me get the answers I needed. I do attempt to converse in their language though I do mangle it more often than not. Most just smile and try to help. I think your handling of the manner was just great The Nurse Practitioner’s Place

About Me

My name is Kim, and I'm a nurse in the San Francisco Bay area. I've been a nurse for 33 years; I graduated in 1978 with my ADN. My experience is predominately Emergency and Critical Care, and I have also worked in Psychiatry and Pediatrics. I made the decision to be a nurse back in 1966 at the age of nine...

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