Bayefsky: Play the silent game abroad

‘Harom,” said the woman behind a sandwich-shop counter, her hand already stretched out toward me.

The rest of her sentence degenerated — for me — into a string of meaningless Hungarian words. All but harom — I knew what that meant: I’d seen it on a bus, or a billboard or a sticker somewhere. I pulled out four bills and placed them proudly on the counter.

She shook her head.

“Harom,” she said disapprovingly.

The woman took three of my bills — harom: three, not four. I remembered too late! She pushed my sandwich toward me, her eyes already looking past me. I walked out of the sandwich shop, feeling defeated.

Reflecting on the interaction, I questioned how I could have changed my behavior and how one should behave in a foreign country where the local language is unfamiliar. I could either admit ignorance and ask for an explanation in English or try to blend. Although silence may be frustrating, learning when not to speak seems important in cases such as these. Without speaking, one may easily pretend to fit in. Without causing unnecessary attention, one can seem to belong.

Visiting a place where the language is new forces one to take a second look at the way we usually communicate. Unfamiliarity is an opportunity to speak and act differently and to re-think the ordinary rules of interaction with strangers. Attempting to fit in by saying little can be valuable. In the process of trying to acclimate to a foreign environment, we learn that words are precious but that they are only a small part of communication.

Old-fashioned rules such as “don’t speak until you’re spoken to,” can be good advice. By not speaking until we are forced to speak, we learn about the importance of non-verbal factors in conveying meaning. A look of gratitude to a helpful person in a foreign grocery store may accomplish more than a hurried “thanks a lot” at home. Similarly, aggressive verbal tactics are blocked by the language barrier. Starting petty fights with strangers may prove difficult when the first chapters of Teach Yourself books do not include “I was here first!” and “Are you blind?”

Personal restraint and taking time to observe, rather than participate, may offer a new perspective on social interaction. When words are impossible to understand, one can read facial expressions, intonations and bodily cues. Paradoxically, becoming closer to someone when only that person’s gestures — the way she laughs, the way he takes her hand — are comprehensible may prove more satisfying as well as easier. Though silent observation may unsettle the observed while providing a refreshing distance for the observed. Without grasping every word, one can focus on social politics and truly come to understand the way in which two people interact with one another.

Silence also allows one to appreciate communication as a fulfilling part of communal existence. The freedom to choose words that will connect us with the people around us can be taken for granted. Losing this freedom demonstrates its importance.

Unfortunately, non-verbal cues often foil any plans to blend into a foreign environment. Even if racial and other physical considerations make it superficially possible for one to belong, there are countless other give-aways. The way we dress, hold our bags and cross the street can all point to our status as aliens. However, the fact that we will almost certainly fail to disguise our identities does not mean that we can learn nothing from the attempt.

Despite verbal gaps and physical hints, failure to appear local is not inevitable.

Later that day, sitting in a coffee shop, another woman asked me in Hungarian how to activate the Internet. (I cleverly deduced that “Az Internet” had something to do with the World Wide Web.) Overjoyed at having been mistaken for a Hungarian, I murmured a few precious words in a foreign tongue before giving up and starting to speak in English. The woman sighed with great relief and said “Oh! I’m American, too!”

So we had succeeded in fooling only each other. But it was still worth the try.

Rachel Bayefsky is a senior in Morse College.

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