When every word matters

In English, I am sloppily verbose. I have a treasure trove of vocabulary at my disposal and search for just the right words to make my points. I use two, three, four different ones per idea with slightly different nuances to deliver the completeness of what I’m attempting to convey.

In French I am spartan. I have minimal command of the language. I have no nuances—everything I say is stated clearly and plainly. There is no subterfuge or verbal manipulations. I do not have the capacity for double entendre, coded language or farcical humor. If I want to express a new thought or idea, first I have to look up the words.

My initial reaction to life in France was frustration. I could not communicate. Period. I wanted to but it was beyond my grasp. The process of learning was sluggish, tedious and fraught with verbal traps. I often insulted people either through my choice of pronoun (informal versus formal), incorrect usage or word choice, or simply by my abhorrent grammar. Though people were kind and patient, I was desolate at my inability to connect.

And then slowly, slowly I began to learn. I made horrid faux pas’ but managed to apologize my way out of them. I started to collect a vocabulary. I forgave myself for the bad grammar that others simply took in stride, being far more accustomed to talking to foreigners than me.

Now two years in, I still struggle daily but less with small talk and niceties and more with larger philosophical constructs that I feel compelled to discussed (I think therefore I am but surely mere existence is not the essence of a purposeful life!). This means I regularly have to decide in terms of communicating: what are the words I need to know?

In conversation with a French friend who speaks no English, he observed this about me: “I thought when I met you, that you were not for real. I kept expecting you to not be so nice, to get angry or to do something mean. But you never did. You never get angry!”

“NO” I said. “I DO get angry! But I do not know the words. So I have to choose: Should I look up the words to express my anger? How important is it to me? Do I want to know how to fight or say mean things? I decided no. So then I stop being angry. Because I don’t know the words.”

Here’s the funny thing—in English I know all the words. I know how to say exactly what I’m feeling. I can say mean things that make people cry, though I try not to. I can swear and curse and argue and apologize and swear again. It’s tiring. It makes my blood boil, it makes me sleepy, it makes me sad, it makes me weep, it can be cathartic but mostly it’s just exhausting.

In French, I can be polite. I can order food. I can talk about the weather. But I can also talk about things that make me happy. Like my friendships. And travel. Or what I want to do with my life and how much I love art and music. And a whole host of other very positive things. But I cannot complain or argue or say unkind things.

It wasn’t a conscious choice to focus only on positive things. It was just plain laziness. Looking up everything you say, word by word or sentence by sentence is time consuming and tedious. I don’t like this task. It bores and irritates me. (I am a TERRIBLE student, by the way.) When I have something positive to say, however, I am excited at the prospect of sharing this idea. I look it up, knowing I will be rewarded by the other person’s reaction. As we are rarely rewarded for negative feedback, there’s very little incentive for me to research those words.

The amazing thing is that, over time, I’ve come to realize the change in attitude that I’ve adopted in my French life. I don’t know negative words. Therefore I cannot use them. Therefore my French life only tends to reflect the positive. That doesn’t mean I’m happy all the time. It means I’ve got a blasé attitude towards the negative things that happen to me in French. I have to let them go more quickly.

This is not denial of the sort that comes back to bite you harder when you least expect it. There is truly no bad aftertaste or malingering side effects. This is honest, Buddhistic letting go of hurt, pain and anger to get to a place of peace. I’ve acknowledged the feelings, reviewed them and decided they are not essential for me to take further on my journey.

I’m not so smart—I didn’t do this as an experiment in cognitive communication practices to drive positive changes through neurolinguistic programming. This is dumb luck, stumbled upon by someone who likes to communicate but doesn’t want to do the hard work of learning how. I take the path of least resistance. No classes for me, just chit chat at my neighborhood restaurants, grocery stores and dry cleaners. And if you know me in English, you know I LOVE a good conversation with a stranger or friend so I’m kept plenty busy learning new words.

I wish I could say that I’ve carried this golden nugget of embracing peaceful living over into my English language life. I’m afraid I am not yet that evolved. I can’t unlearn the nuances of 40+ years of wordsmithing. But I’m seeing the value of speaking simply, of ordering my thoughts by their importance and understanding the gravity of what I say. I’m hoping by the time I learn the negative words in French, it will be equally balanced by my unlearning of some of those words in English.

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