The other day I had a big, scary chance to practice something that I'm not good at and that I'm honestly not sure I ever will be: indirect conversation. Now that I think about it, I've always felt a little bit socially awkward, especially when it comes to conversation. So to engage in a conversation style so completely different from what I grew up with is like asking this clumsy girl to do this

 

My style of conversation is honest, direct, and a little bit intense (kind of like my writing, no?). It's been one of my biggest insecurities while living in Mexico because honesty, even when it's kind (like telling someone their hair looks good), is uncomfortable to many Mexicans and directness (like saying, “no thanks” when a friend asks if you want some coffee*) is often offensive. This carries over into more complex interactions as well, so I'm pretty shy when it comes to conversation because I don't want people to feel uncomfortable or offended around me. There are a bunch of people in my life here who just have to deal with it – Rogelio, my in-laws, the local store owners. I even explain to people that my manner of speaking isn't intentionally rude, it's just a great big mashup of my culture, upbringing, and personality. I think some people have even come to like me despite my cultural quirkiness, but they've had time to get to know me and somehow understand and forgive my ubruptness, straightforwardness, and vulnerability. There is at least one person in my life, however, who hasn't been able to reconcile my mannerisms with her cultural expectations. It's okay because I get it now. Nobody's fault. But there are times when it would really really come in handy to know how to do Mexican conversation. Like when I've had ideas about strategies for kids at José's school, or when I want to strike up a conversation with someone new. These are scary, scary situations for me.

 

For a while now I've been trying to study how people talk with the goal of isolating some key phrases that would help me converse more appropriately. This is a good thing because idioms and metaphors are a huge part of Mexican conversation. (Recently a friend was talking to me about her family's recent decision to move out of her mother-in-law's house and I mentally packed away a phrase when she said, “Teníamos una pata afuera cuando empezaron a remodelar su casa.” We only had one paw out the door when they started to remodel their house.) Unfortunately, the art of indirect conversation isn't just about memorizing phrases or learning new vocabulary. It's so much more than that. It's feels like taking the ideas in my head, separating them into miniscule pieces, watering them down, and delivering them between chunks of light banter. Oh my goodness. You have no idea how daunting that feels to me (and if you do then please share because it would help immensely to have evidence that I'm not the only one). Small talk is soooooooo hard for me.

 

For example, if I were speaking English, upon approaching a parent friend at José's school we would of course start with, “Hi. How are you?” “Fine. How are you?” So far so good. But to continue in my comfort zone it goes something like this, “I'm pretty good. (pause) I had a tough conversation with the principal yesterday.” Big no no. Too much sharing to begin with. You can't just launch into a topic like that here, even with people who know you. The appropriate way is to talk about everything but what's on your mind – the weather, the traffic, your kid's cold, make a fuss over the other parent's toddler, school lunches and on and on, often repeating something you already said. And then, if there's still time and you find the appropriate transition, subtly mention something about talking to the principal without giving away too much information and see where the conversation leads. Throughout the small talk I'm usually thinking, “What kind of segue can I use to get to the meat and potatoes of this conversation? Oh there was one but now she's on to another subject and it would be awkward to go back. Is what I really want to say even appropriate in this context? Do I even know her well enough to go there?” And then either the conversation is over or we're talking to someone else or my brain is so fuddled that I can't remember what I wanted to say to begin with. Exhausting. There are times when I decide it's simply not worth the blushing and sweat to make so much effort and I just talk, directness and all, and hope the other person isn't too shocked or offended to keep up the conversation. Unfortunately, this doesn't cut it when I truly care about the results of a conversation, like when I recently felt the need to express my concern about an unfortunate situation at José's school. That's when it's time to get on the tightrope.

I am grateful to have people close to me who can give me tips for how to address these kinds of issues with cultural sensitivity. This time, I consulted with Rogelio about the situation at José's school. I gave my version of what I wanted to say and then he made suggestions about how to tone down my rhetoric. Soooooooooo grateful. I ended up talking to the vice principal because I have a good working relationship with her from when I taught English to some of the kiddos last year. I started out with a “script” that I had practiced in my head based on Rogelio's suggestions, with only a little bit of fumbling. But then the VP straight out lied to me. That was not part of the script {cue sweat}. At this point I went into auto-pilot American Kristin mode and directly called her out on the lie, wondering at the same time if the lie was an indirect acknowledgement, and then found myself trying to backpedal to safer ground and feeling like a copout. Oh boy. Well, in the end the VP thanked me for expressing my concern and promised that nothing of the sort would happen again. I'm just hoping that with time the tightrope gets closer to the ground so it doesn't hurt so much to fall off.

*If you're offered refreshments in someone's home in Mexico and you'd like to decline the offer, the culturally appropriate response is to say, “Ahorita,” which translates to, “In a little bit.” The host will understand that to mean that you don't care for any refreshments. The very best response, however, is to accept the refreshment even if you don't want it.

What kinds of things do you feel insecure about and what steps do you take to overcome them? I'd love to hear your stories.

 

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