It's funny how two people can be speaking the same language and saying entirely different things. Different areas may have different meanings for words or phrases, and what one might think of as a compliment comes across to another person as a hurtful remark. There's also different standards within individual countries or across the world as far as what constitutes success, intelligence, or beauty, to name a few.
I was made sharply aware of this a number of years ago as I walked through the lobby of the bank in which I worked. Although it wasn't that many years ago, the behaviors that many people indulged in then would be considered blatant harassment these days. Fairly harmless banter was traded back and forth, and it paid to be able to think on your feet. On the day I'm remembering, someone said something that really took me by surprise, and not in a good way.
As I walked through the lobby one day, one of the security staff said to me, "Whoa, Katrina, you've got some big legs!" I was stunned and hurt. This person, with whom I had always been friendly and kind, had just told me that I was fat. I reacted with a combination of anger and hurt. "Well, I guess that being fat runs in my family, but thanks for pointing it out!" I stormed back into my office, trying to shake off my angry/hurt feelings and not burst into tears. Later on, the person in question came to me with a concerned look on his face to apologize for hurting my feelings. Where he came from, telling a woman that she had big legs was a compliment. It actually had nothing whatsoever to do with size; it was a way of telling someone that she had very attractive legs. After learning that I was hurt over an intended compliment, I felt both flattered and silly. I filed the incident away in the back of my memory and moved on without resentment.
Several years later, after having left the bank for a year or more, I found myself back in their employ. One of my favorite coworkers was a very kind young woman from Chihuahua, Mexico named Rosa. When Rosa heard me say a few words in Spanish, she was delighted. She was kind enough to say that my pronunciation was perfect (I told you she was nice!) and she often took a few minutes to teach me a new word or two in Spanish. In fact, Rosa was so thrilled by my love of her native language that she told the ladies who worked on the housekeeping staff that I was a very nice lady who also spoke some Spanish.
These ladies looked at me a bit differently after this. They had a great deal of affection and respect for Rosa, and if Rosa felt that way about me, they were instantly willing to to extend their respect toward me as well. Something that I find intriguing and delightful about Spanish is that there are different ways to say something to someone based on your level of familiarity/friendship, or their age group, for example. If you want to say, "How are you today," there are different ways to say it based on those social guidelines. If you say it to an older person or a stranger or your boss, you use the formal version of the word you, and the words paired with it are slightly different. If you were my customer, I would use usted, the formal form of you, and if you were my friend, I would use the more informal tú.
One evening while I was on a break, one of the ladies on the housekeeping staff said to me, "Usted tiene piernas grandes." I immediately took the meaning of the word grande as large, and reacted by clumsily saying that yes, I did have some really grande piernas. She had an interesting look on her face, and I excused myself to go back to work thinking that maybe I shouldn't wear shorts (non-customer contact area, a detached facility, and night shift equal a very casual dress code) or dresses to work if my legs were getting that large.
When I got back to my work station I told Rosa what had happened. She looked pleased when I said that I had been told that my legs were large. She asked how I responded, and I told her. Her face was full of surprise and concern. "Oh, no, Katrina! She was telling you that you have great legs!" And I had responded by saying the equivalent of "Yes, I know." Yikes. So Rosa jumped right into action, explaining to the woman in question that I was not some sort of rude and conceited person, it was just that I didn't understand that she was giving me a wonderful compliment. Suddenly I was back in the bank lobby, unaware that I had been given a very sincere compliment. And even on the exact same subject!
A number of years have gone by, and health issues have changed the appearance of my legs. There are places on both where the skin is discolored and looks bruised due to chronic superficial phlebitis. When I stand or walk or sit too much, the poor circulation in my legs causes swelling from the knees down. These legs still get me where I'm going, but they don't feel or look as good as they once did. Anyone who tells me my legs are big nowadays is most definitely referring to their swollen size. But I certainly wouldn't mind having my younger and healthier legs back again. Even, or maybe especially, if people told me they were big ones!