An investment of words

All it takes is a greeting in the right language and that surly taxi driver may turn into your best friend, at least, until your ride ends.

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Who'd have thought two words could make such a difference? But they do. Addressing representatives of the Emirates's millions of subcontinental workers with phrases like Tung gay? in Pashto, Sub teekay? in Urdu or even Kullu tamaam? in Arabic has proved capable of generating a hugely positive reaction. All three phrases effectively mean "Are you OK?", but just greeting someone in a language other than your own is enough.

I use the phrases whenever I hail one of Abu Dhabi's well-travelled white and gold taxis and encounter a grizzled and embittered driver. As they launch into gripes and rants about everything from "too much traffic" to their sweeping generalisations about the parsimonious tipping traits of different nationalities, the easy solution is to ignore them and stare straight ahead until the end of the journey.

But try this: remember one of the phrases above and watch the reaction. There is always - always - an instant smile and a change of attitude. And often a double take as well, which is not always a good thing if at the time the driver's blasting down Muroor Road at 140kmh. We all know these drivers have plenty to complain about. Most of them live in bunkrooms with a throng of other drivers, are separated from their wives and children for years at a time, work six days a week and sometimes for longer than 12 hours a day - all in return for earning less in a week than the professionals they carry would spend on a ball ticket for a night out.

Really, who wouldn't be disaffected? One evening recently, the taxi I hailed was driven by a grizzled middle-aged man who seemed to epitomise surly disaffection. Picking me up, it seemed, was just the most recent of an endless series of bad turns to have afflicted him. I didn't take it personally. I'm not the only person who suffers from a tendency to overgeneralise and dehumanize the other side, and to him I was probably just one more overpaid and overprivileged expat professional whose life was infinitely better than his own.

"Tung gay?" I asked. The reaction was instant. Once he recovered from the shock, he became happy and chatty, even after he realised those were my only two words of Pashto. By the time the ride ended, the soundtrack of griping and grizzling had been replaced; he was singing Pashto love songs. These songs were just near me rather than aimed at me, but still, it's not a bad return for an investment of remembering two words.