Why We Talk

The fear feels like a lightness behind your eyes, as if your head wants to float up like a lost balloon and leave your fumbly, stumbly body for good.

You spent three years learning French out of a textbook, five years ago. The woman behind the bar asks you a question and you stand there terrified, mentally swiping left on every garbled response that enters your brain.

When you speak a new language out in the wild, you’re terrified of being misunderstood.

In fact, you will be understood better than ever.

In your second language, you will speak with more emotional clarity and honesty. There are two reasons for this:

1. Words are more than their definitions. Words are collective memories. Without the weight of history behind them, we toss heavy words lightly. We’ll use horrific curse words like monopoly money. We will call our taxi driver our dear friend and tell him it was a pleasure to meet him.

2.  Precision is the enemy of clarity. Large vocabularies obscure meaning. Which of these reviews of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is more precise? Which is more clear about the author’s feelings?

“What The Epic does come to sound like, over the course of its significant running time, is a generational intervention—an educational tool that widens the definition of styles that fall under “jazz classicism.” With his writing for string sections and chorus, Washington even flirts with that most dreaded of appellations:smooth. But these specific choices also wind up paying dividends: The calmly spiritual voices and Washington’s wailing playing during the back half of “Askim” feels novel.”
Pitchfork review of The Epic

“The Epic sounds beautiful. I love it. I love listening to it. You should listen to it too.”
-My review of The Epic, as translated from my Spanish vocabulary.

The average native speaker knows twenty to forty-thousand words depending on their level of education. The average foreign language speaker knows around five thousand words. Who will be more more clear about how they feel? Who will be more direct about what they love? Who will sound more human?

Why We Love

Sometime between the second and third hour of wandering through Granada after dark, I realized it was time to be honest with myself. No more lies, no more shame. Here goes: I’m a fan of Drake. I’m a Drake fan.

I hope you accept me for who I am. I understand if you need a minute. Culture seems to be moving faster and faster these days; it feels like yesterday that just the idea of a rapper being from Canada was far-fetched. I can understand that for Gen-Xers it must be shocking to see us kids mixing gentle crooning with corny rapping like it’s just a normal thing to do.

Alas. Millennials. We are who we are.

I think I figured out why corny-ass, emo-ass, marshmallow-soft Aubrey Drake is an inspiring character to us.

See, for the past week, I’ve been traveling on my own, and when you’re by yourself in a new city you think a lot about vulnerability. You fumble through a conversation with a bus driver in a foreign language, or you eat dinner by yourself in a crowded restaurant, or you approach a group of strangers chatting at the bar. At any given moment you are wagering your physical or emotional comfort. Your dignity is constantly in danger.

A foreign city is the opposite of a safe space.

What I’ve come to learn is that the way we respond to vulnerability dictates whether others see us as confident and charismatic, or shy and awkward. As self-development writer Mark Manson explains in Models, we exude confidence when how we see ourselves is more important than how others might see us. When our self-perception is stronger than anybody’s else’s perception of us, we can be comfortable while being vulnerable. We don’t feel the need to hide our accents or pretend we are perfect. Our rough edges not only define us, they are what attract others to us.

This is the key to understanding Drake. After all the goofy dancing and embarrassing confessions, what shines through is a startling emotional authenticity and lack of neediness. Go ahead, call him uncool. Turn him into a meme. He really doesn’t mind. He knows who he is. He likes that person.

In the 90s, rap was defined by its aggression.
In the 00s, rap was defined by its bravado.
In the 10s, rap is being defined by a different sort of strength – a deeper, truer, more lasting sort of strength. Drake is defining contemporary rap with his vulnerability.

I enter my favorite bar in Granada and see a bunch of new faces. Locals and expats, chatting and laughing in little groups. Here I am by myself. Then I remember Drake and his dorky sweater. I walk up to a group of strangers and introduce myself. We have a great night.

Why We Talk

Most language learning programs boast of their ability to help you speak like a native. They can (for a moderate price) shorten your vowels, soften your B’s, erase the habits of your heathen tongue. Bloggers build massive audiences teaching expats and tourists to dress like a local, eat like a local, queue like a local. We learn that the biggest mistake a visitor to a country can make is standing out in any way. The perfect traveler knows the customs, speaks the slang, orders the right drinks (but not too early), dances at the right clubs (but not too late).

For hip travelers, anonymity is the highest virtue, an expression of social mastery.

This is a bizarre reversal of our ambitions at home.

When we order a medium coffee at the local cafe on our way to work, we are completely unremarkable to the barista. And vice versa. Odds are you don’t remember the names or faces of the last five strangers you interacted with. It’s unusual (and often marvelous) when we make an impression on anybody at all in our day to day life. We remember people because of their accents, not in spite of them.  The waiter might have an amusing habit of pluralizing single nouns. Our visitors from the foreign office pepper us with questions we’d never considered. Our friend’s cousin seems to think our surname is both lovely-sounding and absurd. Everything that is wonderful and memorable and powerful in our daily conversations emerges from new perspectives, skewed priorities, happy ignorance, and funny hats.

As Arnold Schwarzenegger can attest, the slyest move you will ever make is to keep your accent.

What Came Next

Sports fans love war metaphors. The gridiron is their battlefield. Supporters don their war paint before the big game, gnaw on grilled red meat, chant their bloodthirsty songs. We drape our athletes in combat virtues; we laud their bravery, sacrifice, ingenuity, brotherhood.

Strangely, I can’t recall the last war that had a time limit. Perhaps the penalty shootouts in soccer recall a classical era in warfare, when armies lined up, met in the middle, and cut each other down to a man. Unfortunately, times have advanced considerably.

For sports to earn their combat metaphors, we must update the rules.

Let’s abandon time limits completely. For any team or athlete to win, the opposition must submit. Games will continue indefinitely until players cannot continue due to exhaustion. Fan supporters may join the game as their players wilt, an amateur reserve of weekend warriors.

Games of soccer would last for days until the coach throws his tie onto the pitch. Basketball games would end with scores like 3856 – 505; yet another crushing defeat for the Knicks.

And, crucially, fans of both the Dodgers and the Giants would shake their heads after a grueling 5 week marathon ends in mutually agreed detente. What was the point, they’d ask themselves.

What was the bloody point?

Uncategorized, Why We Talk

Should you spend an afternoon wandering through any internet forum, you will observe the breadth of human interaction at play. Friends and strangers buzz with tension, disagreement, snark, and bile. Also: encouragement, condolences, anticipation, and gratitude.

Yet there is only one place I know of where people share apologies.

In the game Journey, you wander the pale, sun-baked desert. In solitude, you slide over sand dunes, scale ancient dust-choked ruins, soar through rose-gold valleys. Against the desolate and uncaring plain, we are reduced to a survival instinct. Perhaps the curiosity of what lies beyond the next hill propels us forward for a little while, but in the long stillness even that falters.

And then, suddenly, there is more. At a key moment you find yourself floating beside a red-cloaked companion, a real person playing the game alongside you. Your companion is unnamed. You pass through each other, like ghosts. The only way you can communicate with each other is with a melodic chirp.

As you travel together you can help each other navigate obstacles, but your partner is more than a tool to advance through the game. In this lonely expanse, this anonymous internet stranger becomes your beating heart, a reason to keep caring, to keep moving forward.

Wordlessly, relationships form. One guides the other. Or, you dance like fools in the air, for a moment unconcerned with the temple in the distance. Or, you chirp back and forth, la, la-la, perhaps the first song these sands have ever heard.

Perhaps the first anonymous kindness you have ever received.

That feeling of connection, so deep and unexpected, has led some to quit the game entirely after accidentally separating from their partner. And in one corner of the internet, people apologize to their companions. For the spotty internet that left them alone, for the bungled jump that stalled their progress, for “real” life calling them away.

All with a single melodic chirp.

After Journey, it is difficult to return to the roaring furnace of social media. The wordy diatribes, the looping gifs, the winking emoji, it’s all Times Square loud. Boisterous and garish and menacing. You wonder whether we really need any of this.

You have a golden memory of a friend in the desert. We sang to each other. For a time, it was all we needed.

What Came Before

There are some that assert that Pop isn’t a specific genre of music, but rather the ever-shifting expression of a generation’s joys and anxieties. Pop sheds its skin in every era, wears new names: Rock, Grunge, Rap, EDM. The purists who point to a specific sound (say, late-80s Madonna) and insist, “this is Pop,” miss the point completely. They may as well point to the tomb of Lenin and declare, “this is leadership.”

Some speculate that at the beginning of the 20th century, what we consider Philosophy, the ordered examination of what we know and how to live, also shed its skin. The kids gave it two names: Physics and Psychology.

Why We Do Better

We tend to think of the word inspire as an active verb. We believe a person intends to inspire: “She inspired me to speak up at our executive meetings.” “He inspired me to tutor at the local high school.” “She inspired me to start a side business selling my vintage dresses.” “He inspired me to tell my friends that I needed help.”

The truth is, inspire is almost always a passive verb:

“I was inspired, by that person…” (…who did not intend to inspire, who simply acted kindly, authentically, gracefully, selflessly, heroically – and I was watching.)

Why We Learn

Get rid of foreign language classes. Recycle every copy of introductory Spanish, Japanese, and Russian. Grant those tired textbooks a second life as something more useful, like origami or moving boxes.

We marvel at the infant’s ability to acquire her native language. The truth is, it’s not her brain that holds the advantage, but her environment. With this in mind, our institute will train speakers to native proficiency with the following method:

  • We relocate each student, regardless of age, to a town in the country of their target language.
  • We place each student in the home of a loving host family that does not speak the student’s language.
  • The student takes nothing with them: no possessions, no clothing, no paleo-friendly snacks.
  • The student is now the child of the host family. Not metaphorically. They will rely on their family for every need, including eating, bathing, and extemporaneously philosophizing. The student is prohibited from taking any action on his or her own without requesting it in their target language.
  • The host family will seek to meet every apparent request that the student makes, as well as teach the student to speak and read as quickly as possible.
  • The host family will talk to the student constantly, often using a simplified form of the target language.
  • Students will receive immediate feedback and correction when they make mistakes, and astonished, tearful praise when they construct their first basic words, sentences, and statements.

Our institute guarantees that the student’s language proficiency will surpass that of a native-born baby at 12, 24, and 36 months**.

** Guarantee does not apply to student’s pronunciation abilities. As it turns out, our sensory and neuromuscular systems are most malleable in youth. Simply, babies’ ears and tongues are more impressive than their brains.

Why We Talk

On long train rides, I consider the helplessness of Superman.

The public has, perhaps unfairly, concluded that Superman’s powers are limitless. Therefore, when a problem – any problem – goes unsolved, the point of failure is obvious: Hostage situation? Capsized pleasure cruise? Unexpected volcanic eruption? Superman problems.

Systemic racial bias in policing? Hidden debt in derivatives markets? Mounting threat of mass extinction due to global climate change?

Alas, Superman’s abilities end at the boundary between quick disasters and slow disasters.

Quick disasters are events that erupt in moments. They tend to be single-factor, physical, objective, observable incidents. Falling planes. Speeding cars. Aggressive drunks. Catastrophes that can be averted by lifting, swooping, blocking, catching, and most thrilling of all, punching.

Slow disasters brew and unfold for decades or centuries. They are often complex, contextual, informational, nonlinear systems. Regional political disputes. Behavioral norms and biases. Environmental and economic degradation.

In the age of Buzzfeed, I imagine strongly worded Open Letters to Superman, penned daily by representatives of communities obvious and obscure, decrying his inaction on the amount of GMO grain in chicken feed, and the shrinking of Australia’s coral reefs, and the development of commercial properties on tribal lands, and, and, and.

Not Superman problems.

Clark Kent problems. Clark Kent, the journalist.

The power of the written word: to snake through the boundary between quick and slow disasters, to lift hearts and minds instead of overturned school busses. To inspire mass action, to salve (if not solve) a generation of sectarian divide, to plant vision and ethics and seeds that grow for centuries, long after Superman returns to that great Fortress of Solitude in the sky.

Imagine if Krypton didn’t imbue Clark Kent with superhuman strength, but superhuman wit and empathy. Able to bridge bitter conflicts in a single aphorism. More inspirational than a parent’s sacrifice, a preacher’s pulpit, or a clear view of the Milky Way in the night sky.