Dear Cannoli, poking fun at an employee over their English is not 'banter' — a privilege check is overdue
The video of two female owners of a high-end cafe in Islamabad apparently mocking the English language skills of their manager appears to have struck a nerve with Pakistanis on social media. And it should.
While the incident reflects belittling behaviour on part of those more privileged, it says so much more about Pakistan as a society and its fault lines of inequality, class divide and linguistic 'otherism'.
The one minute or so video begins with the two women introducing themselves as the owners of Cannoli. Because they are "bored", the women proceed to introduce their restaurant's team. The camera turns straight towards Awais, the cafe's manager.
"How many classes have you taken for English?" one of the two owners asks Awais, to which he responds that he has been learning the language for 1.5 years.
At this, the owners ask the manager to "say a sentence" in English and introduce himself. Complying immediately, Awais says: "Hi, my name is Awais. And ... I job there ... manager."
The camera then returns to the first owner who, visibly struggling to contain her laugh, says: "So this is our manager who's been with us for nine years. This is the beautiful English he speaks. This is at a very good salary, mind you."
The second owner chimes in to say: "This is what we pay for."
And so, unsurprisingly, the floodgates of criticism opened on social media. There were proclamations of "class privilege" and "colonial hangover" and "elitism", while #BoycottCannoli remained the top trend in Pakistan throughout on Thursday.
It drew the attention of celebrities...
And even foreigners acquainted with Pakistan...
What didn't help at all was the half-hearted apology issued by the restaurant.
"We are saddened and appalled by the reaction of the people, how they have misconstrued our banter with a team member," they said in a note on Instagram.
"This video depicts the gup shup between us as a team, and is never meant or taken in a hurtful or negative way. If anyone was hurt or offended we apologise, however that was never our intention."
The owners went on to say they were "not required to prove or defend ourselves as kind employers", saying their team had been with them for a decade, which "should speak for itself".
"We are proud Pakistanis who love our language and our culture," they concluded.
The "apology" may only have served as fuel to the fire, but since things tend to get ugly on social media (people resorting to character assassinations and name-calling, I am looking at you), let's focus on what went wrong here.
First things first.
The women's behaviour does not appear to be intentionally spiteful or driven by malice — at least on the face of it. The women are not directly abusive towards the manager and even tell him shabash (good job) in Urdu when he attempts to speak English.
What they are being, however, is utterly and unabashedly patronising. Their level of entitlement is such that they are making fun of their employee in their definitely-not-Pakistani English accents on camera while he is standing right in front of them. Awais may not be able to articulate grammatically perfect sentences, but did his owners assume he also would not understand them so clearly poking fun at him?
Even if we were to believe their argument that this was mere "banter" with a team member, do the women not realise it is extremely in bad taste? Also, if it was really just banter, we would see the manager laughing in the video along with the women.
Instead, we see him nervously and self-consciously answering their questions and not challenging the women despite being put on the spot in this manner and laughed at.
"Gup shup" takes two — this was clearly one-sided.
So while the women may be trying to downplay the recording as some innocuous "gup shup" among colleagues, the undertones of a crucial power dynamic are all too obvious: that of an employer-employee relationship. The manager knows he cannot confront the women and must try to pass what is effectively a test because they are his bosses. They can fire him in an instant if they want to and the salary they pay him may just be running his household.
And now some fundamental questions.
Why test his English in the first place? Does a cafe in Islamabad receive so many foreign customers that communication would be a problem if the manager doesn't have full command on a language that is not his first? And okay, even if it IS crucial somehow to his job, was this some sort of training? And was the manager asked for his permission before being tested for his language skills in this manner on camera?
AND, why bring in money and his salary?
The two women appear ignorant of the fact that in Pakistan, the language a person speaks isn't just a medium of communication but an aspect that dovetails with the harsher realities of systemic and societal exclusion, class discrimination and the chasm between the haves and the have-nots.
To all the social media warriors, boycotting Cannoli and affecting someone's business and the workers' salaries isn't a solution; we need to realise this is a symptom of a much bigger problem and as a nation, we need to really tackle it at ground level.
Begin with yourself.
Have you judged a person's manners, desirability or how educated they are based on their English proficiency? Were you proud of going to a school that "fined" students for not speaking English? Have you looked down upon people who attended a public school or university? If you are an employer, did you automatically find yourself inclined to hire the person 'speaking better English' even when the job itself had nothing to do with the language?
Now, be the customer and think over if at any point, YOU have been part of the problem; did the two women feel their manager needed to speak fluent English because their customers expect that from a 'good eatery'? Here's a harmless one: have you sniggered at a 'well come' typo or similar ones at a restaurant?
Have you consciously felt a restaurant manager/shop salesperson/salon receptionist (the list goes on) pay more heed to your complaint if you speak English — and do you use that to your advantage?
If your answers to any of the above questions are yes, you may be — even unintentionally — part of the problem. If we are to progress into a more egalitarian society and truly move past the colonial hangover, we must stop instrumentalising the English language to exploit the emotions of our people in order to serve our own ends — and stop using it as some litmus test to judge people's capabilities for xyz professional position for where language doesn't even matter.
It's time for some soul-searching and meaningful actions that go beyond a boycott.