Saturday, 7 June 2008


I'm a circuitous talker. I'll start out telling a story, remember something relevant to it halfway through and get sidetracked, then resume my tale, all the time waiting for exclamations, contributions and questions from my interlocutor. Most of my friends are used to my rambling ways and kindly indulge me, but of course not everyone appreciates this conversational style.

I used to have a neighbor I could barely communicate with. Although we both spoke English -- North American English, for that matter -- we had completely different conversational styles. She was more of a surgical strike talker -- she got to the point so fast it made my head spin. It also (to my mind) ruined many a good story, which could have been drawn out and embellished considerably.

It's not as though I always take ages to get to the point; I know there is a time and a place for verbosity. But when you've got the time and a really good story, it seems a shame to rush through it. I never realized what a sore trial I must have been to my neighbor until one day when we got stopped by an elderly woman living in my apartment block. This woman was lonely and she tended to go on forever, and as my neighbor didn't speak Japanese, she was particularly frustrated by the interruption. When the elderly lady finally said goodbye and went on her way, my English-speaking neighbor commented rather acidly that I sure could go on. Which is indisputable, but her casual remark horrified me because I realized I'd been driving her wild. Suddenly everything clicked: all the time we'd known each other, she'd been as puzzled and irritated by my long-windedness as I was by her tendency to cut to the chase.

Up until that time, we'd always had rather awkward, slightly disjointed conversations, but after that I turned into a gibbering idiot around her. I found myself in such a rush to make my point that I struggled -- and failed -- to find words. I couldn't talk properly anymore: idioms I knew perfectly well eluded me and I started doing stupid things like forgetting the past participles of irregular verbs. And I began to see that communication was so much more than a shared language -- that it had a lot to do with a shared conversational style and the knowledge that what you have to say will be appreciated.

Years later, when my eldest daughter started elementary school and I went to the obligatory class observation, I got to talking to another mother, Ariyama-san, at the school. I'd noticed her taking careful notes, her eyes never leaving the teacher's face and I'd wondered at her diligence. I didn't have to wonder long.

"I'm deaf," Ariyama-san told me in slow but perfect Japanese. "I lost my hearing when I was eight. But I can lip read."

We'd been talking for five minutes and I'd wondered at her slow, carefully- enunciated speech and assumed that she was adjusting her speed for me because I was foreign. I was stunned to realize that this was the way she usually talked, but even more surprised that she and I understood each other perfectly. Arguably, she was easy for me to understand because she did speak slowly, and although she was a bright woman, she'd no doubt lost some language as a result of her affliction. But her communicative skills were absolutely first rate and I have never met a more careful listener. I was amazed by her ability to understand everything I said. Of course, my Japanese was far simpler than the fast-paced, heavily idiomatic Japanese the other parents spoke, but I stumbled over words and made mistakes. But if she ever got flustered or confused over what I said, she was great at hiding it. And of course she never had the least bit of trouble with my accent.

One day when we were talking, I couldn't help myself. "You really understand what I'm saying," I exclaimed. "And you never talk down to me."

Ariyama-san looked amazed. "You understand me. You don't exaggerate your syllables and I don't get the feeling you're patronizing me." She glanced around. "Lots of people patronize me."

I made a lot of wonderful Japanese friends at my kids' schools, but two of the people I was able to communicate with best were Kim-san, who was a Japanese-speaking Korean woman, and Ariyama-san, who was legally deaf. Kim-san and I managed to communicate in a foreign language, and Ariyama-san read my lips. I still can't get over how effortless it was to talk to these women -- how we almost never had awkward conversations where we both started talking at the same time or misunderstood each other.

Our ability to communicate was probably enhanced by the fact that we were all odd men out in a country where it doesn't pay to stick out. Kim-san's Japanese was better than mine, but she still had an accent and whenever people noticed it, she got flustered. Ariyama-san's mother once told me that a lot of people shied away from her, imagining it would be too much trouble to talk to her. As a foreigner with a rambling conversational style, I knew all too well that good, sympathetic interlocutors were hard to find. All three of us were linguistically challenged.

More than anything else, we were able to communicate with each other because we desperately wanted to.


Robert the Skeptic said...

A couple of decades ago, while my (first) wife and I were on a on a Greek cruise ship in the Caribbean, we made good friends of the Greek Radioman. We often visited radioman, Christos, at the radio room on the ship, keeping him company while he was on duty.

One day Christos was trying to place a call for a passenger over the ship-to-shore radio link. The operator on the shore was located in Florida and had a very heavy Southern accent.

The Greek radioman spoke English quite well, but he could not understand the thick southern drawl of the US radio-telephone operator. My wife and I found ourselves assisting the radioman by translating the conversation from English into English.

When the call had been completed, Christos thanked us. "I didn't understand half of what she said," he exclaimed!! "Efharisto".

Barbara Martin said...

Your post resonated with me. I, too, am a rambler when I talk, often going off on tangents or long winded explanations.

As to misunderstanding what is said, I have had occasions when speaking to others where they do not understand the term or phrase I have used. Once an explanation is given then their understanding is evident in their expressions. In that respect then perhaps I am also an alien.

Tabitha said...

I think most writers have this long-winded trait, simply because we love a good story. :) I do, and it drives my husband crazy. Early on in our relationship, I was in the throes of telling a story to our friends, and he ruined the punchline. If looks could kill, he would have dropped dead right then and there. :) He doesn't do that anymore. Bless him for accepting me for the rambler that I am. :)

Katie Alender said...

I worry a lot that I talk too much, especially about myself. In a way, I think it's made me a better conversationalist, because I take care to ask a lot o questions and try to keep my mouth shut. But it's also made me self-conscious.

Because of this, I have a particularly ungenerous reaction to your neighbor's meanness! Poor Mary! And I know exactly what you mean about getting tongue-tied. When I try to boil something down for someone who doesn't have patience, I end up messing it all up. If I'd just said what came naturally, it would have been far more effective. My stock line for that situation is, "This is why I'm a writer."

Oh well.

Charles Gramlich said...

I tend to be a somewhat clipped and brusk speaker, except when I'm visiting my family. And I change my conversational style when I teach. But generally I think I'm a horrible conversationalist. I do much better writing.

Lana and I have very similar styles though, and similar interests in conversation so we get along wonderfully.

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- I have relatives in the South and there are times we've had trouble understanding each other, so I can imagine how your friend Christos must have struggled. It's too bad: I love the way Southern English sounds. On my last trip back to Florida, my uncle was giving us directions and for the life of me I could not understand what he was saying. He finally had to spell out one of the words: viaduct. I swear he put in extra syllables. He didn't seem to have any trouble understanding me, and I wish he had -- it would have appeased my guilt.

Barbara -- Thank you for visiting my blog, and how happy I am to find someone else who goes off on tangents!

I've learned that there are people I can be long-winded with and people I cannot. My husband is one of the latter types and I've had to work hard to pare down my speech around him. He's been good for me, in that respect; if he too were long-winded, we'd probably get very little done.

Tabitha -- My husband is the same. What I find irritating is that he often tells the same stories over and over (they're actually great stories, so no problem there), and I attempt to support him in his efforts by laughing in all the right places and nodding eagerly (I've learned not to interject -- MOST of the time). But I can hear him rolling his eyes when I launch into my favorite stories. Unfair! Over the years I've learned to read his 'Get to the point' look and he's learned to roll his eyes more quietly.

Katie -- Ooh, you and I could get up to some serious talking! For us conversation is all about the journey, not the destination. I have friends who also have rambling styles of conversation and we have a great time together. (Other less garrulous people have commented that they got dizzy listening to us.) Most of us talkative people are well aware of our conversational eccentricity and have learned to live with it. We do tend to grativate towards people like you who have learned to be considerate (people who have no grasp of their own self- centeredness can be real eye-openers).

Charles -- Around certain people I am a horrible conversationalist. Around others, I am witty, shrewd, and blessed with the gift of gab. People can give me fluency or take it away.

I changed my style in the classroom too, though I did have some students comment that after having me for a teacher they could understand motor-mouths much better. Sigh.

Good for you having a partner you can talk with! Even given our different speaking styles, my husband and I generally do pretty well too. It definitely pays to have similar interests.

Carole said...

Mary, I opened my computer to read this post this morning when I realized I had missed the post about slugs. I have no idea how I missed it because my google reader is suppose to alert me about such things. My daughter-in-law Randa showed me how to use the reader when she was over the other day. She wasn't here on a normal visit, she needed to get out of the heat in St. Louis because her air conditioner broke down. Air conditioners can be quite expensive and to find the best one you need to do a lot of research. I am not much of a researcher, but I had this one teacher back in Montana--where I grew up-- who loved research. She was a history teacher. History is my worst subject. I liked math and English, but history would get on my nerves. Did I tell you I had bad nerves?

I have a friend that chatters on like the above paragraph and it isn't so much good story-telling as just annoying. Your stories have a point however, so I like them.

I keep my conversations short and to the point, which means a lot of people misunderstand me because I leave out valuable information.

Ello said...

Lovely story! And I can understand how it was that you related to those that were different especially in Japanese society where they are so perfectionist and non-tolerant of differences.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Interesting. Maybe your lip movements are actually easier to read if you're a non-native speaker.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- I have a friend who goes on and on like that too. (Gulp: she's probably saying the same thing about me...) My husband claims it took him some time to realize that my stories DO usually have a point. He'd love a wife like you, but he's stuck with me!

I don't believe I could bear to leave out valuable information. I use every scrap of information that comes my way and sometimes delve into the valueless stuff. Just the thought of your valuable information lying around going to waste makes me feel mournful.

Ello -- When I look back on the friends we made in Japan, they are such an interesting mixture. Many of us bonded over the shared experience of raising kids while working full-time, but those of us who were marginalized had an even firmer bond.

GB -- I've just come back from Edinburgh where I go every month to attend a Japanese-speaking conversation group. One of the women in the group had the exact same experience when she lived in London. She knew a woman there for an entire year before she realized that this woman was deaf. She said the woman read her lips even though she butchered consonant clusters and mixed up S and TH and R and L. All this time I'd thought my own experience was fairly unusual, but I think you're right: that non-native speakers are not particularly challenging to lip readers. I think this would make a great study.

ChrisEldin said...

Both of my children have issues with stuttering, and part of our training/therapy is that they have to learn to slow down their speech. That's the most important thing. But they also have to learn to take turns in conversation and not "hog" the floor, meaning talking and talking and talking without giving the other person a chance to chime in (because while the other person is waiting, anxiety builds and that can increase stuttering).
Interesting post.....

Kim Ayres said...

Absolutely - never let the point get in the way of a good story :)

Eryl Shields said...

All I know about my conversational style is that it doesn't irritate only two people in the whole world: my son and my best friend. It was such a relief to meet Rhona about eight years ago, I don't need to concentrate on what I'm saying with her. With everyone else I get tongue tied all the time.

My husband tells me I am a much nicer person in writing! Thank goodness for email and blogging, now I can have conversations in writing. I never use the phone, I hate the phone.

I have to go to my husband's company's annual summer party soon. Everyone will feel obliged to talk to me because I am the new boss's wife. I'm having palpitations just thinking about it. I really hope there is music so I can just dance.

Interesting that a few of your commenters have linked lack of conversational ability to being writers.

Angela said...

What a great story, and an almost poetic connection with the deaf parent in your child's class. Sometimes life hands us such great opportunities, it leaves me in awe.

Thanks for sharing the story. :-)

Carolie said...

I sure do enjoy your stories, Mary! This one hit home especially for me, as I tend to "run on a bit," trying to ensure that whoever I'm talking with really understands what I'm saying. It's not just a cup of fruit juice, it's freshly squeezed from a tropical fruit I've never heard of, and the name means such-and-such, and let me describe the flavor and aroma and blah blah blah! I am worried quite often that I've talked too much...but I can't seem to stop the spill of words!

Your tale also hit home with me right now especially, as I'm in Taiwan visiting a family who all speak Taiwanese and Mandarin, but only the youngest daughter speaks English. Of course, I do NOT speak Taiwanese or Mandarin.

Today, I met the 84-year-old grandmother, and as she told me (via Linda) about her life as a young girl during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, we realized we had a few words in common...of Japanese! We were so eager to trot out the few words we each knew in this common language, thanking each other and counting to ten. There was a sense of kinship as we laughed, this wrinkled, stooped, blind little old lady and I, our backgrounds almost polar opposites, yet we were co-conspirators of a sort because we knew these few words and the others did not.

Finding communion and common ground in unexpected places is miraculous and magical.

Mary Witzl said...

Chris -- Turn-taking was one of my favorite subjects in sociolinguistics and interrupting was one of the things I was most interested in. I like to think I'm good about giving other people turns and not hogging the conversation, but sometimes I'm so thrilled to have a chance to talk that I go hog wild. I feel for your kids: children are interrupted a lot, but not having mastered the complex turn-taking rules which involve a lot of body language, eye contact, and subtle word use, they also do a lot of interrupting. All kids need to learn this, but I can appreciate it's tougher if you tend to stutter. I have a family member (not related to me by blood) who has no time for anything I say; he makes me stutter. Oddly, he is very long- winded, though unlike me, not circuitous. And fortunately, he'd sooner fly to the moon than read my blog.

Kim -- Heh heh -- you've already learned that I don't do this, haven't you? The point is nothing compared to the story itself and can sometimes be forgotten entirely.

Eryl -- My husband tells me the same thing! He claims that in writing I make a lot of sense. If he just stuck around to listen to my long diatribes and monologues, he'd probably find that I eventually make sense in speech as well.

At least the people at the party will HAVE to talk to you! Imagine if they didn't feel obliged to talk to you at all: that's happened to me a time or two and it makes me feel so wistful.

I am absolutely positive that I write because I can never get what I want to say expressed properly (and people seldom hang around long enough to hear it unless I really control myself). Writing is so much easier than speaking. You can monitor what you 'say' far easier; you can go back and correct it; you can hone it endlessly. And if people get bored with your writing, you seldom know about it -- so different from speaking. Talking is fun but writing is deeply satisfying.

Angela -- Thank YOU for reading my story -- the pleasure was all mine. Loads more where that came from.

I often feel that I miss a lot of opportunities that come my way. I'm thrilled with the ones I have, but sometimes I think there must have been more I didn't see. (I was probably too busy talking to notice...)

Carolie -- If we ever meet, we are going to get some serious talking done -- this is exactly how I feel!
I always tell myself I'll stop this -- that I'll get right to the point. Then damned if I don't get caught up in the words and blither on and on... (And hey, that juice sounds GREAT!)

My yoga teacher in Tokyo told me that her father was in Taiwan during the war. He claimed that the Japanese in Taiwan during WWII were a cut above the others who went to Korea, China and Manchuria. I don't know if that's true or not, but it does seem that the Taiwanese I've met have been less anti-Japanese than the other Asians I've met. I will have to e-mail you about this; I am dying to hear about your trip to T'ai-pei. I love the thought of you and that lady trading snippets of Japanese!

Kappa no He said...

Recently I have been very aware of my way of conversing--how I've lost a lot of my ability from disuse and how I can talk so easily with some people but like you mention I get all funky around others. I thought I was the only one!

Kim Ayres said...

In some ways writing is still an odd activity for me. My primary mode of communication - the one that I am by far and away most happy using to explain things - is talking.

Writing is like a 2nd language to me. I remember I used to think that if all my school exams had been oral instead of written I'd have achieved far higher grades and a great deal more easily.

Carolie said...

Taipei and Tainan have both been simply amazing, though I finally ran into something tonight that I had a hard time with. Turns out I've got issues with the texture (though the taste is fine!) of the chunks of congealed duck's blood I was served tonight. Eeep! However, I've put a couple of photos up on my poor neglected blog if you want to see a photo of that heavenly juice!

Kara said...

my friend in new zealand and i used to talk on the phone. half of the convo was "what?" and "hey?" we finally decided to stick to letters. WAY easier.

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- You are not the only one! Living in a country where English is not routinely spoken definitely takes its toll on your conversational ability. You probably speak English every day, but only with a small group -- right? You get awkward with English and it puts you off your stride. The good news is, it takes little time to get your fluency back.

Kim -- I love talking (provided I have sympathetic interlocutors who don't mind joining me in my long-windedness), but if my exams had been given orally, I would have suffered terribly, and my examiners would have been checking their wrist watches surreptitiously. I get all the more garrulous when I'm nervous.

Carolie -- I've heard about congealed duck blood from A Paperback Writer, who has eaten all sorts of dodgy things. I'd have to say no to congealed duck blood. I know that's not polite, but my instinctive gag reflex would kick in bigtime with that one and I'm betting my reaction would be even less polite.

Kara -- The telephone is hard! You can't see people's faces or body language, and New Zealanders do interesting, but confusing, things with vowels. I used to study Japanese with a woman from New Zealand. The first day I met her I was struck by how charming her accent was. Just before I could tell her this, she commented that my MY accent was quaint.

Danette Haworth said...

I'm very much like you. I like to tell a full story and hit the punchline hard. I have to concentrate very hard when someone wants only the Cliff Notes version

Mary Witzl said...

Danette -- I love the way you expressed that! I'm going to use 'Cliff Notes version' in the future myself. Fortunately, they have Cliff Notes in the U.K. (I checked.)

problemchildbride said...

When I taught ESL in Minnesota the older South American ladies said they liked it when i taught them because I rolled my rrs and they didn't feel so accented rolling their rrs at me when they spoke English.

There was no reason for it, a rolled rr hardly makes you a good person, but this somehow pleased me tremendously and I smiled all the way home. I guess what it was was relief that they weren't all sitting there wishing they had Claudia or Shari instead of the fumbling Scot.

Mary Witzl said...

Sam, that would have pleased me too! And how interesting that you taught ESL in Minnesota! I taught EFL at a British school in Tokyo, so I know how it feels to be the odd man out.

In fact, I've never met anyone who said they didn't like Scottish accents. I've heard that people with Scottish accents get top marks for trustworthiness.

Alice said...

I'm wondering what happend with you and my blog reader thingy! I missed all kinds of stuff.

You really should put a book together. You just write so well and I love your stories. Probably reflected by how you speak.

I'm like the woman who just wants to get it out quickly and it's how I write. Which is why I didn't go for English in college.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Alice. I'm having a lot of trouble with Blogger lately, though I suspect in my case it is me, not them. They did some sort of blanket reformatting thing recently that has bamboozled me -- but then so much does.

I have written a memoir based loosely on studying Japanese and all the experiences I've had during the process, in Japan and quite a few other countries, and the concensus is that as I'm not famous, it won't sell. Probably means my prose isn't polished enough, so I will keep plugging. It cheers me up when other good writers say they want to read what I've written.