Saturday, August 25, 2007


Learning from the Conversation Impaired

Those who knew me were probably surprised when I chose to take a job teaching English conversation in another country. True, nearly everyone recognized the potential for adventure, and I certainly met the baseline qualifications for the job, meaning that I was born in an English-speaking country, had a college degree and hadn’t committed a felony that anyone could prove.

However, for me to teach conversation in English seemed to be about the equivalent to me teaching advanced quantum mechanics in English (to put in advanced mathematical terms: “bad.”)

If asked list the skills I’ve acquired over the years, I’d probably cite the ability to dispense complex information into clearly written sentences, listening closely and quoting movies at length, especially if the film involves Russell Crowe and/or the Roman Empire.

One thing I’ve never really mastered is having conversations. This is a skill that most York men lack, and I think it has something to do life on a farm in rural South/Midwest. In order to save time, your traditional agrarian professional should start conversations with no more than “Hi” and end them with no more than “Later.” After all, starting with “Hi, how are you?” or ending with “Talk to you later” takes up time that should be better spent sharpening farm equipment or harvesting soybeans before the next drought begins.

York men also tend to be very single-minded about their work, and interactions with those who don’t share their profession tend to be very short because they just don’t appreciate the ramifications of certain facts, such as: 1) the summers are getting hotter and dryer every year, 2) the socialists in Washington want to raise taxes on that newly sharpened equipment we need to plant soybeans, and 3) the corporate interests in Washington are forcing our product to compete with people from some place like Honduras.

I decided early in life that I farming just wasn’t for me (in fact, “Farming just isn’t for me” might have been my first words), but I inherited the conversation skills that would make any Midwestern or Southern cultivator proud. By the end of middle school, I realized that talking less during class meant that I would have fewer friends than most of the other students, but my hindquarters would also be less acquainted with the principal and his 18-inch hickory sidekick (two feet if you count the handle).

In addition to this knowledge, my eighth grade classmates paid me an honor by voting me “most bashful.” This award carried with it the privilege of a special yearbook photo, in which it appeared as though I was trying to hide behind one of the pillars at the school entrance. However, my moment of recognition was spoiled when, the copyediting standards of middle school yearbooks being what they are, the photo caption identified the winner as “Bob York.”

Galled by this slight, I was inspired to become a news reporter. My first full-time job was with The Paris-Post Intelligencer, and by then I’d cultivated my conversational interests to what I considered to be just the right degree. This was an important development, because on a regular basis I was required to call people, often those I had no prior relationship with, and ask a series of questions for the purpose of extracting needed information.

The worst possible outcome of such interaction would be that the person on the other line wouldn’t say anything, since they assumed that all journalists were exemplified by a few notorious newspaper/magazine reporters who fabricated material and were punished by losing their high-pressure, largely anonymous newspaper/magazine jobs and given high-profile, six-figure book deals explaining what drove them to fabricate.

By contrast, the best possible outcome of these calls would be that I would say “Hi,” they would give me the necessary information, then I could say “Later” and we could both move on with our lives.

Worse then this, but better than the person who didn’t want to talk to reporters, was the person who really, really wanted to talk to reporters. As I was in the process of information extraction, they would reverse the equation and start interviewing me.

Me: So why are you leading this push to legalize liquor sales in this community?

Them: We want to see a greater opportunity for business development in this area. One of the reasons I’m voting for Bush is because I think he’s pro-business. Tell me Mr. York, who do you like, Bush or Kerry?

Me: Sir, I’d really prefer not to discuss my personal views.

Them: Oh, okay.

Me: What do you say to people who feel you’re creating a community that isn’t family-friendly?

Them: Well, Mr. York, before I answer that, can I ask you if you have children?

Me: Uh, I’m 25 and I’m not married.

Them: Really? You’re going to have a hard time here.

Me: *whimper*

Maybe the best thing about living in Korea (at least besides the good job, the new experiences and the thousands of young women who consider any Western without gratuitous facial scarring attractive), is that it’s easier now to have meaningful conversations. People in this country want to know all about life in America, and the people I’ve talked to from home ask all kinds of great, well-thought-out questions about life in Korea.

Me: Hi.

Them: Hi, how have you been?

Me: Good. I’m living in Korea these days.

Them: Oh really? How is that different from living in America?

Me: It’s a lot more Korean and a lot less American.

Them: …

Me: Later.

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