Opinion: Yeah, mahn, no problem

Street corner slang is common to all human groups. We might collectively understand that a Blue Sunday is one when our Indianapolis Colts are playing a football game. But others who are not interested or are situated far from this media market would miss the reference. Our language absorbs catchy song lyrics, clever phrases and sloppy pronunciations to build an ever-evolving lexicon of community-based shorthand. Much is rooted in unique local characteristics. A large immigrant population nearly guarantees that phrases from the mother-tongue will be incorporated into the native communication mechanism. Indigenous geography, flora, fauna and weather conditions can add dimension to our interpersonal expression.

But more than language, we work to separate ourselves through food choices and styles, architecture, manner of dress, and countless other markings designed to indicate that “we” are exclusive and different from other groups. Each of these is a measure of home-grown. The town boosters would be proud. Yet how and when does an outsider know that it is time to affiliate with the group? When is it culturally sensitive to enjoy the cuisine, admire the buildings and pick-up a catch-phrase or two?

Traveling to the rural Jamaican hometown of the groom for the wedding of the daughter of one of our own, our experience was more home-cooking than corporate consistency. Our hosts, at every stop, were charming and welcoming. Some insisted that we enjoy johnnycake, try a few local expressions and taste a rum punch. Yet others seemed intent on ensuring that we found ourselves more different than the same. “Yeah, mahn, no problem,” is an expression that visitors should be quick to learn but slow to use. When Hartford, Conn.-based American poet Lawrence Pertillar co-opted the expression in his poem of the same name, did he honor or offend? It is likely that he did both.