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My Best Holiday Advice


Alright, so I know just enough Spanish to be dangerous.

A conversation starts off swimmingly. They ask where I’m from, what I’m doing in wherever place we are, and about my family. They may even crack a simple joke and I’ll laugh.

Usually after I giggle at something, someone says, “Oh, she does know Spanish.” They think I know what’s up. Let me assure you, I do not.

But every conversation takes a noticeable turn. While talk about the weather, family, and the immediate surroundings (you know, the vocabulary lists from Spanish 1 & 2) happen in slow, clear Spanish, something soon changes.

The “real talk” begins…. the gossip, the hearsay, the opinions, the dramatic updates. Suddenly, the talk is low, words are murmured, expressions and body language heightened, and the rapid-fire speed of Spanish is off the charts! This is where my language skills become truly dangerous.

I can read tone and gestures well enough to know this is the “good stuff.” I can catch enough words usually to follow subject and context. But details are completely out of reach. I walk away knowing something may or may not have happened to so-and-so and we may or may not feel such-and-such way about it. Dangerous.

Naturally, when I am alone with my husband later, I beg him for details. And I get… nothing. Sometimes he doesn't know what conversation I’m referring to. Are you kidding me?! Other times, he’ll nod and go “oh yeah,” summing up a thirty minute gossip fest in two sentences. No, thank you.

It therefore became necessary for me to collaborate with Billy on a symbol. Nothing dramatic or flashy… just a quick little gesture that says, “Whatever is being said right now, REMEMBER IT and tell me later.” Because apparently… he wasn't reading that message in my eyes when I was clearly saying the same thing.

So why am I telling you this? You may not often find yourself in a second language gossip situation. Well, I have learned that it is also helpful in all-English settings. The following is a nearly exact exchange Billy and I have had (names have been changed to protect… well, me):

Me: Hey, what was Brad telling you tonight? It looked kinda intense?

Billy: (Confused expression) What are you talking about?

Me: After dinner?

Billy: I don’t know. We were just talking.

Me: Seriously? I walked by and there was some hyper gesturing. You looked at me with a panicked expression like something serious was going on? (Billy maintains silence and a puzzled look.) You guys were facing the window? You were standing on the side? Really? You don’t remember?

(At this point I care very little about the alleged conversation. I just don’t want to walk away feeling like a crazy person who imagines drama that was nothing more than “What do you think of Coke Zero?”)

Billy: No idea. I think he said he was busy at work. I’m not sure.

Thus, it occurred to me, another perfect moment for the “symbol of remembering.” I realize I may come across as somewhat nosy and trifling in this post, but I prefer to frame it as “interested” and “caring.”

The holidays are approaching and you, like me, may not be able to keep up with all the various conversations happening in a bustling house. May I suggest a personalized “symbol of remembering”? Collaborate with your networks… friends, spouses, nieces… and you’ll be able to keep up with everyone this Christmas!

Alright, confession time. And please do not leave me hanging. Am I the only one wondering what other people are talking about? How do you keep up with conversations you can only partially follow… whether language or location are your barriers?

6 comments

  1. Sarah, I'm only in the beginnings of learning how to do this! Let me tell you, my French sounds to be at a similar level to your Spanish. My Norwegian... is not. And that is the language of concern right now! So, I'm going to try to employ the hand gestures over Christmas. Did that work for you guys? I'll keep you posted... :)

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    1. Blythe, your comment makes me so happy! And I'm super excited you're spending Christmas in Norway - what fun! :) So far, the gesturing has worked for us. Although it's best when no one is looking because, well... I'm not subtle. :)Can't wait to hear about your adventures!

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  2. One of our biggest problems in Guatemala happens around the table at his parents house. While my husband and I were dating, I would get so antsy sitting at the table for over an hour after a meal. After the first 20 minutes, I would try to throw him non-obvious signals of desperation but to no avail.

    So we developed a signal - I would grabbed and squeeze his thumb under the table when it is time to stand up. It was such a great solution for us - we still use it almost 3 years later!

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    1. I love this! Yes! Sometimes those clear signals we send are not received. Collaboration is key! :) Thank you for sharing, Carrie.

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  3. Denise L Hershberger10:21 PM

    My husband's family used to be Amish. They speak Pennsylvania Dutch. I am fluent in Spanish. They have enough Latin basis that I can pick up a few words here and there. But mostly I rely on non-verbal cues. I think I scare them how much I pick up on :)

    As for my Spanish. It is pretty good but when I do get confused in conversation my Spanish is good enough (near fluent) to just ask the person to clarify or define thing for me :) My husband however knows maybe 3 words in Spanish so when we are in Spanish surroundings he just ignores everything around him and doesn't care what he misses!

    I like that you and Billy created a signal because you are right he probably had no clue you were sending him signals with your eyes :)

    Did I mention I love your blog?

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  4. Awh. Thank you so much, Denise. Yes, I am so surprised how often Billy misses all the VERY CLEAR messages I am sending him with my eyes. :)

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