Je ne comprends pas!” I say, begging for mercy. “I don’t understand!” My high school French education proved useless while I was surrounded by fast-talking, slang-slinging French teenagers, and shamefully I waved the white flag of total incomprehension. The Parisian boy speaking to me just laughed with that irresistible French twang that seemed to say, “stew-peed Amer-ree-ken.”
On Wednesday, my family welcomed a French foreign exchange student, and I, the only member of my family with a basic knowledge of French, took on the role of sole communicator. I’d gotten all A’s in French and therefore fancied myself something of a language expert, so I thought the French tour group would be fawning over my elegant rolled consonants and the nuanced way I distinguished between words like au-dessous and au-dessus.
In action, however, I sputtered, biffing conjugations and pronunciations. When the teens spoke, their words went way over my head like jets, heard but unseen. This was frustrating and disheartening, and I found myself simply choosing not to speak when in the presence of the 28 French teens in the exchange group. It felt like the first day of freshman year, replete with solitude and reticence.
I am a talker. My personality is made up of the witty things I say and the one-liners I recite on the spot, as if they’re already written down. Call me narcissistic, but for me, it’s all words, words, words. So being stripped of my communication abilities left me bereft of my power, my ultimate weapon.
Americans take for granted the ability to communicate. Unlike Europe, made up of countries with different languages and cultures, the United States is its own isolated bubble. We believe that America represents a microcosm of the world at large, making us not only closed off to the world but fearful of outsiders. Common language is the key to breaking this detachment, but taking a few years of Spanish or Italian in high school and college hardly suffices.
The day before the French tour group arrived, I had Berkeley Summer Orientation. Overwhelmed by the unknown faces, I went into “life of the party” mode, buzzing from one person to the next in a campaign to conquer the heart of every stranger by extroversion and loquaciousness alone. I apply the command-and-control strategy of war to making friends: Always make the first move, command the conversation, surprise assault leads to disaster, maintain control at all costs.
Applying warfare tactics to fraternizing doesn’t always lead to the desired result; people tend to feel like they’ve been hit with an atom bomb of friendship that is at once overwhelming and engulfing. This strategy also makes me highly unapproachable, especially considering that the person I’m trying to befriend is cast as the enemy combatant. If I’m not firmly steering the direction of the conversation, I could be caught off guard with uncomfortable questions or solicitations that crack my carefully crafted facade, which shields my timidity and uncertainty from view. I hide my weaknesses behind my ability to converse.
Such a stratagem worked well at orientation, where I found myself surrounded by people who were just as excited to get to know me and came fully equipped with their own ammunition. But in a group of French speakers with limited English skills, I was at a loss. Lacking my bag of tricks and charms, how could I connect without the luxury of coherent speech?
The gift of gab is not something to be taken lightly. This society preaches that extroversion is the key to success, that only the loudest voice in the crowd is heard, that conviviality equates confidence. CEOs and heads of state didn’t get to where they are through shyness, it tells us. Rarely do we celebrate the reticent and unforthcoming, but without these people, world progress would come to a standstill, overrun by megaphone-wielding extroverts vying for the final word.
At the next outing — a tour of San Francisco — I expected the day to run the same as the one before: me sitting speechlessly while the others gabbed endlessly about les cigarettes, la différence entre Marseille et Paris and les boîtes de nuit.
But then, something happened. People started coming to me, rather than I to the them, asking me questions and initiating conversations. They wanted to know the recipe for s’mores, the meaning behind the lyrics to “Rack City” and what exactly YOLO stands for. I found myself swimming in endless conversations — which I didn’t initiate — and savoring the freedom of not hiding behind my usual shield of boundless chatter. My defenses were down, and I liked the feeling.
At the end of the outing that day, I gained a dozen amis — friends — and also a greater sense of communication as a whole. Sorry Hamlet, but not everything is “words, words, words.” Sometimes communication has nothing to do with witty syntax and clever puns. By allowing myself to put down my arsenal of language weaponry, I truly experienced the pleasures of mutual conversation.
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