Language Outsider (ii)

Andrei Marks · June 9, 2008

Sometimes I like to think of human conversation as a game. Liken it to whichever game metaphor is handy—sports, video games, psychological games—or even better just speak of it as if conversation were a game in its own class. And the game gets really interesting when it’s played as a large group. Take mealtime chatter as an example. You have several people, any of whom might bring up a topic of conversation. Maybe something they were thinking about, or something they did, or something they saw. So the topic’s on the table, and then they develop it and grow it for the others with their words. There may or may not be a climax to it, maybe they were just mentioning something to get the ball rolling, but eventually somebody else will step in.

That person will carry the last person’s thought further, in whichever direction they’d like, until they’ve finished or are interrupted, whereupon someone else takes over. The dynamics of the exchanges get complicated fast, and the nature of the conversation can be varied. Maybe it’s an argument, a debate, simple banter, general bullshit, jokes, stories, whatever; each has its own style of play and its own strategy. Sometimes single threads of conversation weave in different directions throughout the night and sometimes the conversation is broken and restarted many times, or the main narrative splits up among the players and merges again later. There are so many different things to talk about, and so many different ways to talk about them! There are some people who dominate conversations, some people who are great at relevant interjections, some people who direct the talk on the sly, some people who are conversational wallflowers and some people who simply 空気を読むことができません! All sorts.

I generally think about dinner conversation in terms of laughter, with the more successful games leaving you with that nice warm feeling of general mirth afterwards. Haha, a conversational after-mirth if you will. And I know I can hold my own, not one-hundred percent of the time, but enough so that it’s always exciting to me. And sometimes I find myself thinking on that meta level, of when I contributed to the game by throwing in my words or throwing someone else’s words into a different light or bringing in something new and relevant. But that’s just in English, Chinese is a very different story.

Here at my internship, I eat out with my colleagues every afternoon, generally five to ten people on any given day. Now, one-on-one I can be gregarious as anything, but when you’ve got that many people playing the game, the field is extremely different, and I find myself opening my mouth a lot less. I’m not a language outsider, I can understand maybe 85% of what they say, with the 15% being some vocabulary I might not be familiar with on a basic level (let’s say they were talking about mortgages or some specific regional tea or, ugh, Chinese medicine) and which thus makes contributing all the more difficult. But even if I minimize the linguistic disadvantage, the cultural disadvantage is substantial.

Tomorrow I’ll describe more of what I mean, 明天见!

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