Friday, April 8, 2011

How Arabs Talk

How you talk matters a lot.

It's not just what things you're trying to say, but the actual way you say it. It's how fast you talk. It is how long you wait once the other person stops talking until you start talking. It's how loud you like to make your voice and it is how emphatic it is appropriate to let your voice become. It is about whether you should use a calm voice or whether bouncing and rising and falling tones are better

It's how much deference you're supposed to show to whoever is speaking. It is whether it is an insult to talk along with and over somebody else as they speak, or whether talking along and peppering in questions is just a way you show that you're listening.

It is whether it's rude to ask a question directly or weak to use euphemism. It is whether you are just allowed to ask about anything you want to know. It's whether it's comfortable start a conversation talking about each other, or whether it is more comfortable to start with your the weather, your surroundings, other people.

We each have our own norms. There's mine. There's the Jersey. There's the Minnesota. And there's the Arab.

Everything is relative. Take the Minnesota standard stereotype. From my perspective someone talking with it sounds slow, it sounds derpy and timid. Meanwhile someone talking in the Jersey style is loud and obnoxious and generally asinine. But from a Jersey view a Carolina stereotypical style might sound derpy and slow and weak. There's been peer reviewed psychological research (but I am too lazy to link to it here. look it up yourself if you care that much) to show that the exact same thing said in each conversational style has an entirely different impact. The difference is just in the relative traits of the conversational styles. There's always some style is slower and sounds stupider. And there's always some style who is louder and faster and sounds like an asshole

Well. That Arab conversational style. Arabs are the loudest and the most passionate and aggressive and emphatic speakers I have met yet. When the talk to each other they almost always sound like they are at each others throats. It is upsetting, it is off-putting, it can be repulsive. From my conversational style's point of view.

A while back I was catching a ride home with this awesome Arab guy. He told me he was going to meet his mother at the Jabri where he was dropping me off. A minute before we got there he called his mother, and after a moment of pleasantries he started shouting, screaming, mouthing-off venom into the phone. I was embarrassed and looked away. When we pulled up he got out of the car and he was still shouting as he hung up the phone. He hugged his mother while apparently screaming, and few seconds later their fight broke into a round of laughter.

I've seen many repetitions of the same basic interaction since then. And it isn't fighting. It sounds like it, but it is not fighting. That is just how Arabs talk.

They adapt for Americans though. Most adult Arabs I have met tone it down when they talk to us. They keep it calm and simple and they don't shout. Kids don't always realize they should do this, but to a certain degree that is just how kids are.

Most Arab people don't get boundaries and American-appropriate conversation though. They'll ask how much you weigh, why you don't get a haircut, why aren't you a Muslim, why you don't have children. That's just small talk, nothing to hide in shame. They are just self conscious about other things then Americans are. They are reserved about their own issues.

Still--even realizing what incites ya' against them--seeing Arabs talk the way they do makes it hard for me not to harbor a sneaking suspicious feeling that they might all be jerks. So maybe it's just the social norm of how ya' talk. But ya' still sound like a jerk.

What might be the worst is trying to work within those cultural norms. The Jordanians have been living with these standards for their whole lives. They know how to work with them and move within them. As an American I can't seem to get their conversational style down, I get nervous and I get rushed and end up saying things that are just plain stupid. All the while reminding myself that no it does not make them a jerk to ask this, it don't make them a jerk to talk like that. Trying to use somebody else's style is a recipe for awkwardness.

In the end I am sure there's a bunch of Arabs who have thought that I'm an idiot. There's a few Arabs I have decided ain't good people.

Which makes it convenient that what we think of each other doesn't really matter. Even a lil bit.

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