A brief catalogue of annoying habits reinforced by eight months in Afghanistan:
1. Negative: Eight months with the military has wholesale eradicated the word "no" from my vocabulary and replaced it with "negative."
I will concede that this is a speech habit I coveted prior to my assignment with the U.S. military. It's a phrase that sounds very martial, which is similar to sounding rugged, only more so -- and since I have crafted an entire internet dating portfolio around appearing to be rugged, picking up the phrase "negative" just seemed to be the next logicial step, not dissimilar to talking enthusiastically about camping or pretending to have an interest in rock climbing. I had made some inroads into picking up the "negative" habit in Beijing by spending inordinate amounts of time hanging out with the Marines, drinking cheap beer and talking about push ups. At the time, though, I was still generally capable of saying "no."
Now that the vocabularic transformation is both complete and seemingly irreversible, I recognize that it just makes me sounds like a twit.
I will say that "negative" is a small step up from "nay," which is Urdu for no and which I used consistently upon returning from Pakistan. While "negative" at least implies some sort of military background, "nay" just indicates that you're big into Dungeons and Dragons and spend your spare time hanging out at Renaissance Festivals, likely while wearing a tunic and carrying an unsharpened sword -- that is, the opposite of the rugged look I'm going for.
2. Inshallah: At this point in my life, I am fully incapable of referring to any future event without throwing in an Inshallah, Arabic for "if it be the will of Allah."
I've consistently used Inshallah in lieu of "hopefully" since I've lived in Pakistan, but living in Afghanistan has reinforced a very specific feeling of impending doom you get if you don't use it -- like omitting it will cause something terrible to happen. (At one point after leaving Pakistan, I casually threw out an Inshallah at my parents' house, and my mother asked what it meant. "If Allah wills it," I told her. "Dakota," she replied icily, "I would like to remind you that we are Catholic").
Of all my annoying habits -- and I will concede I have many -- my consistent use of Inshallah is the one that most bugs the Godfather. "What time is the Ambassador's plane supposed to land?" he'll ask. "9:30 Inshallah," I'll reply, and he'll take a deep breath and get that exasperated look that indicates that dealing with civilians is his cross to bear, and grit his teeth and say -- "the scheduled time of arrival is zero nine thirty hours, whether Allah wills it or not. This is an Inshallah-free PRT. Zero nine thirty."
"Right," I'll rebuke him. "Zero nine thirty Inshallah."
3. Touching your heart: Shaking hands is an uber-mandatory part of Afghan culture, and every meeting begins with a long procession of people entering the room and shaking the hand of everyone present. If you shake hands and you really mean it, you finish the shake by using that same hand (always the right hand) to touch your heart while bowing slightly from the waist.
If for some reason you can't shake hands with someone -- for example, if they're the opposite gender and by extension touching them with your grubby male paws would be wildly inappropriate, or if their hands are full of AK-47, or if there's like a tiger pit or something in between you and them -- then it's perfectly fine to acknowledge their presence by making eye contact, smiling, touching your heart as above and bowing slightly.
Likewise, if someone offers you something you have to turn down (a lunch when you're pressed for time, for example) -- you can't actually say "no thanks" -- the no is rude, and besides you might slip up and say "negative, thanks," although mercifully that word has not yet invaded your Farsi vocabulary. Instead, you just say "thank you" twice (preferably in a slightly dismayed tone of voice), shake your head lightly and repeat the chest-clutch/bow routine. Offer declined, problem solved, off to the races.
After eight months in Afghanistan (and a year in Afghan Farsi classes before), I am incapable of acknowledging another human being without touching my heart -- even if we've only made eye contact and haven't actually shaken hands.
The Italian Colonel on my base has made it clear that this habit freaks him out ("I am not Afghan, you need not do this -- people will think you are too much Afghan now"). Lieutenant SemperFit, the PRT's Physician's Assistant, has informed me that clutching your chest is known in medical circles as Levine's Sign, and is one of the hallmarks of a heart attack; he invariably asks if I'm feeling ok and if I have any crushing pain in my chest radiating into my left arm.
(Lieutenant SemperFit is the PRT's well-built and vaguely exercise-obsessed P.A. who was previously seconded to the Marine Corps as a medic -- known in the Navy as a "corpsman." He's also a raging conspiracy theorist and has sworn never to eat Afghan food out of a persistant fear of being poisoned. I told him he's missing out -- the Afghan food I get off base is easily the best food available in Farah. "Right," he responded in that tone of voice indicating that he thinks I'm in idiot. "Till they poison you").
I was aware that the heart-touching thing was getting out of hand, but I didn't realize how deeply ingrained it had become until I dropped anchor in Zambia, where I've been heart-grabbing/bowing like a madman. Unexpectedly, though, it appears that Zambians make the same gesture. It is unclear to me if doing so is innately Zambian or if they're just responding to me, but I've gotten a lot of hands-on-heart in response. And a thanks-plus-clutch-plus-bow has actually been consistently enough to get rid of both taxi drivers and child beggars, two of the developing world's normally most persistant annoyances.