‘QUEDAR BIEN’: HOW TO BE POLITE (AND MAKE FRIENDS) IN ACADEMIC LIFE

The Spanish idiom ‘quedar bien’ (or Catalan ‘quedar bé’) doesn’t translate well into English. WordReference offers as basic suggestions “to make somebody happy”, “to make/cause a good impression”, “to look good to someone”. Elsewhere I have come across this: “to stay in good terms”, “to get in good with someone”, “to please someone”, none of these 100% accurate. I mean here, of course, “quedar bien” in the sense of following certain rules of politeness and not the “quedar bien” used for clothing (“that dress looks good on you”, “you look great in that dress”) or cooking (“me queda muy bien la tortilla de patata” = “my Spanish omelette tastes delicious”).

There must be much anxiety about the impossibility of finding a perfect fit in English for this idiom, for a Google search throws up mainly links to translations, not definitions. The RAE Dictionary seemingly does not gather idioms, for it offers no definition of this one, nor do its lexicographers include it in the entry for the verb ‘quedar’. Another bout of unfruitful googling leaves me wondering about this strange lexical blank: everyone knows what “quedar bien/quedar bé” means but nobody is offering a reliable definition of this expression; fancy how hard it must be to master by foreign learners of Spanish!

The point of my post today is actually wondering whether everyone does know what “quedar bien” means. I’ll offer my own version, to begin with, then offers examples of the opposite behaviour. “Quedar bien” means performing actions addressed to showing one’s own good will to please others, for the sake of making the relationship with them work well. I think this is it. This varies in degree: you may ‘quedar bien’ with your couple by organizing a candlelit dinner to show your love, or simply greet a neighbour every morning to be in nice, neighbourly terms. Funnily, I do not know whether the ‘quedar’ in the idiom is self-reflexive (“this makes me feel good”, that is, “me quedo bien”) or transitive (“I make/cause a good impression”). Probably a mixture of both. No doubt, “quedar bien” can be quite hypocritical, as it may even cover an intense dislike: I actually hate my neighbour and I use my daily greeting to avoid real conversation.

In, specifically, academic life “quedar bien” earns you many contacts (and indeed friends). This is a situation in which it is absolutely imperative to behave impeccably, as you never know who might be assessing you for publication, a research project, a tenured position… you name it! The worst possible situation, doubtless, is one in which your academic peers whisper behind your back that you are impolite, nasty or, God help me!, an arrogant bastard/bitch.

We are in need of maintaining our reputations beyond strict academic achievement, and it hurts nobody, as far as I gather, to have the reputation of being a real gentleman or lady. Yes, old-fashioned as this may sound (remember I teach Victorian Literature?). I do my best to apply this rule though, of course, it is for the others to say whether I am successful. I also do my best to incorporate to my academic life what others teach me, like emailing a thank you message to conference organizers once you return home, which I learned to do from a very polite English colleague.

“Quedar bien”, in short, entails a big or small personal sacrifice to do something you NEED NOT DO. Generally speaking, though, it only brings benefits–yes, it can be an extremely selfish attitude or even hypocritical, as I said. Now, for the examples of how NOT to “quedar bien” in academic life, this time including students:

*the by now increasing tendency, as I noted in my last post, to tell your Literature teacher that you don’t like reading (you don’t want to signify yourself this way)

*emails sent with no opening greetings and no closing words (how hard is it to write “Dear Professor, Here’s my essay. Thanks. Yours, Mary”?)

*not thanking people who have thanked you for something (“Thank you for being a good student” means, yes, that your teacher is fishing for a compliment)

*pretending you don’t see a teacher in the corridor: yesterday an ex-student made a point of NOT seeing me by… whistling as I passed by her side

*pretending you don’t see a colleague you don’t like that much in a conference you’re both attending (just say “hi, nice to see you” and move on)

*disrespecting in any way people in positions enabling them to a) grade your work, b) offer a reference letter or recommendation, c) hire you (this is the equivalent of shooting your own academic foot)

*being arrogant at conferences when asking questions to colleagues, both your own level or superior–coming across as if you know better than anyone else will make you no friends. If you want to be nasty and cannot help it, make sure you will not cross paths with this person ever again.

*express negative opinions about the work of people who have a say in your academic future, for instance by publishing a negative review of their work (oops!)

I could go on and on, I hope you get the idea. If you think I exaggerate, I know of an individual who is guilty simultaneously of the three last offences… my inspiration for this post.

You may be thinking at this point that “quedar bien” is all about being a complete hypocrite/sycophant/brown nose/ars licker… playing a hypocritical game. There is just a little bit of this but, believe me, it is not that difficult to distinguish between the genuine article and the phony one. A person who inclines towards “quedar bien” sets clear limits: “I’m greeting you in the corridor for politeness’ sake but this does not mean I admire you”. The sycophant knows no limits and will probably tell you in the middle of the corridor, for no good reason, how much s/he admires you. Yes, they overdo it.

Academic life is, I grant this, a delicate game based in many occasions on nuanced personal impressions. I find myself frequently discussing these days how big a hindrance personal differences are for teamwork to progress. Yet, happily for me, I work in a Department in which most colleagues believe in “quedar bien”, sometimes with an effort, more commonly making no effort. Teachers may spend decades with the same colleagues and this calls for subtle policies regarding how to make coexistence as nice as possible. Blunders happen, inevitably, but, needless to say, they must be avoided, particularly, let me be crass, to protect your own interests.

To finish: “quedar bien”, as I acknowledge, is a fragile mixture of selfishness and generosity which only brings benefits, whether professional or personal. Behaving like a “señor” or a “señora” must always be the rule, in any environment. In academic life there are inevitable power dynamics that, openly or covertly, rule our life and the worst anyone can do is ignore them.

I feel like one of those Victorian ladies who used to publish conduct books, but, well, one doesn’t teach Victorian Literature for a couple of decades with no effect whatsoever in one’s mentality. I’m even using the impersonal ‘one’ like Queen Victoria. Better stop now…

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2 thoughts on “‘QUEDAR BIEN’: HOW TO BE POLITE (AND MAKE FRIENDS) IN ACADEMIC LIFE

  1. This is an interesting post because you touch on the linguistic as well as the cultural and even the professional intricacies of “quedar bien”.

    This interests me in particular because I teach Spanish as a foreign language and I often have to do exactly what you’ve done in this post – if a word or expression doesn’t translate well, you need to provide at least a few contexts and examples to help students get the gist of what it means.

    Personally, I think “make a good impression” works in many of the scenarios that you mentioned, though I think this is one of those cases where different contexts will require a different translation.

    Anyway, as I was reading your post, I did at one point wonder whether the reason English doesn’t seem to have an equivalent expression for “quedar bien” is that it’s not needed. Some of the things you mentioned help you “quedar bien” in some cultures, but they’re basic politeness in English culture, so they’re not “something extra” but something everyone does or knows they’re supposed to.

    For example, at least in England, sending the host a thank-you note after any kind of event is mandatory. I hear that after attending a birthday party, parents make children sit down and write a thank-you note as soon as they get home…

    But then a lot of the behaviours that you mentioned aren’t just rude or “quedar mal” but just not very intelligent!

  2. Samuel,
    Yes, you’re possibly right to say that English has no need for ‘quedar bien’ as the assumed degree of politeness in British culture is very high, certainly not in Spanish. I tend to thank everyone for everything since my days in Britain and I must say that very often I get surprised reactions… Then, it’s also funny to see how ‘contagion’ operates: in Barcelona we greet bus drivers when we get on, and in the case of the tiny bus operating to my street we say ‘thanks’ when we get off. I’m not sure this is very common!!

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