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Sunday, September 04, 2011

Of shared taxis and shared language

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These are shared taxis, called "dolmuş" in Istanbul; photo from the late 1980s;
"dolmuş" (pronounced dolmush) is related to the word "dolma" — stuffed pepper, 
grape leaves, etc., because these shared taxis get pretty packed with passengers;
they may not look like much, but even Orhan Pamuk rides in these around Istanbul.

I’m one of those people you can tell who I’m talking to on the phone by how I’m talking. I had a boss who was a boisterous, theatrical woman everyone adored. She laughed a lot and spoke with all the drama of the theater, in which she had leading roles for decades in our community. She entertained every time she opened her mouth. When I was on the phone with her the one time she called me at home, I got off and Don said,

“That was Pam, wasn’t it.”

“How’d you know?”

And then I reviewed myself as Pam for the past five minutes. I had spoken louder and funnier. I even scrunched up my shoulders with enthusiasm and smiled like a performer, as if I were Pam’s mirror self.

I don’t know why I do this. I think I want people to be comfortable, to feel good about themselves. I want them to think I like them so much I’m going to talk like them. I wouldn’t want to talk like me — boring, and heavens I wouldn’t want them to talk like me. I’d rather speak their “language.”

I think this trait is helpful for learning foreign languages actually. When you want to sound just like the person you’re talking to, you have a good chance of at least being intelligible.

When we lived in Istanbul I abhorred standing out as a foreigner. But nothing I could do would disguise the fact. Women in the dolmuş (shared taxi) would look me up and down to see if I had a manicure, how my hair was coiffed, where did I buy my clothes? They knew I was different. And when I opened my mouth and asked the driver in Turkish to stop at the next convenient spot, I was still me, an American in Istanbul, but I could speak their language, at least a bit, and I think they liked that I wanted to be like them. At the end of the day Don would massage the pads between my cheekbones and my nose, which were sore from speaking umlauts. We don’t have those in English. Those muscles screamed, “no pain, no gain.”

The truth is, at the moment I am reading Anne Lamott’s hilarious and helpful book about writing, Bird by Bird, and while she’s talking, I want to write like her. This undoes my theory about wanting the other person to be comfortable. She and I are not having a conversation!


me and my then boss Dr. Pam at my college graduation in 2001*

*Note about Dr. Pam:
There is probably no one who affected me finishing my BA in English more than Dr. Pam, who was my boss for seven years and gave me release time from work to take classes. If I remember right, in this shot she was telling me, "Ruth, YOU made this happen, young lady . . . " after I thanked and thanked her for making it possible. Dr. Pam is dyslexic and was told by her high school counselor that she would never do more than clean toilets. One day Pam saw a black woman walking down the street in PhD robes and decided that was what she wanted, and she did it, having to revise her dissertation 22 times, writing it as a single mom with a toddler bouncing on the bed, all the while battling dyslexia. Now she works with TRIO programs to help at-risk, low income, first generation and academically-middle-of-the-road kids set their sights on college.

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32 comments:

George said...

What a wonderful profile of Dr. Pam, and how lucky you were to have such a generous and entertaining person in your life at a critical period. Your observations about language are right on point. Ninety percent of learning how to speak another language is getting into the music of the other language, its rhythm, its feel, its dance, its nuances, its attitude — and when traveling to places where the language is difficult or impossible, I learn as much as I can and lean forward with a "fake it till you make it" attitude. I have always found that if I reach out linguistically, there will be someone there to take my hand.

erin said...

i think you are having a conversation ruth, only this was your listening part. and now that you have shared with us, you have spoken and we are listening. and who we now leave as, these new people impressed with your ideas and your voice (never boring) we will be new and speaking into this world. it is a constant conversation. we are all mirrors. thank god we are not stones.

xo
erin

Ruth said...

Thanks, George. I wonder how many people, young and old, Pam has nudged toward furthering their education. It has to be astronomical by now.

Like so many things, in learning a language it's essential to listen, as you indicate. Certain barriers of self (like wanting to be perfect at speaking) get in the way if you don't. My daughter is especially great at sounds, both incoming and outgoing. I think she had a better French accent than her non-French French teacher in high school.

I think your strategy with language in a new place is just right. It is amazing how just a phrase in the local language goes a long way to open up channels of warmth and welcome.

Ruth said...

Thanks, erin. Yes, I agree that it is a conversation, even if Anne Lamott is not necessarily reading this. But it is so interesting to me to explore the wonder of how I, and maybe others, imitate the other who is speaking, or writing. In all of relationship, what is it in each other that we rise to, what touches us, impresses us, makes us want to improve ourselves in some way? As I've told you so many times, I become a mirror of erin when I read your writing and leave a comment. I feel that I enter a world of you.

Is this why I love blogging? These tastes of one another are savory and sweet.

annell said...

hummmm.... I had a friend who could imitate very well. I never could, and as you know, "Texans talk funny." I always said it was because we were born with cotton in our ears and in our mouth.... maybe we just never learned to pay attention... ???

Ruth said...

Haha, annell, that's a great line. And I have no doubt that after one month in Texas I would speak like a Texan ... though I think I imitate less now than I used to, as my own confidence in myself has increased.

Shari Sunday said...

What a great story and an amazing picture. I have always heard that the best way to persuade someone is to reflect their speech patterns and gestures. I bet that is a huge benefit to learning foreign languages. I don't have the gift of imitation but I have always admired it.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Shari! I think even if you don't have a gift for imitation, wanting to listen and reflect a person's expression verbally is a gift we can return to them. I believe you do this.

Babs-beetle said...

I think that talking like the person we're speaking to at the time is how we should be. It's a bit like getting down to the level of children when speaking to them. It makes them feel more comfortable.

I've known a few people for many years and they actually manage to block this. Any kind of relaxed conversation is impossible. I think that's sad.

who said...

Your smile in that photo perfectly fits your demeanor Ruth. From my interactions with you online, the person that I have come to know is as genuine and kind as that smile. Even from a side view angle, in seeing your eyes it is apparent to me that one does not necessarily need to be face to face in order to be reassured who a person is.

a smile that is genuine with matching eyes is a language that is nearly impossible to fake. You are quite fluent in compassion for others, in a very real way.

ellen abbott said...

What a wonderful role model. But re reflecting the person you are talking to by mimicking their mannerisms, I find myself doing that too.

Grandmother said...

How fortunate you were to have Dr. Pam in your life encouraging you and then helping to make it happen. Mentors play such enormous roles at pivotal times in our journey. I had one tell me I was smart when it never occurred to me that it was true. Because of her I went to college and graduate school in a field I adored. Bless them all. May we mentor others along the way.

Maureen said...

One of my funniest, most memorable encounters was in Italy (a country I love), near Venice, where we stopped our car (we were lost) and I asked in Italian if the individual spoke English, and he replied by asking if I spoke Italian. We both laughed and then he gave us very good directions to get us on our way.

How wonderful to have a Dr. Pam in your life. Great picture of the two of you.

Marcie said...

I know exactly what you mean about how we talk differently to different people when on the phone. Love the expression captured here - you and Pam. what an inspiring woman!!

hedgewitch said...

So much fun to read this Ruth, and see you in that taxi. And Dr. Pam is a very heartening example to all of us about how strongly attitude influences life. Thanks for sharing your experiences with mimicry, also. I think to some extent we all do that--I know I talk very differently even in written communications depending on who I'm engaging. Perhaps it's the way we as primates facilitate communication--some sort of innate interspecies hook-up.

Arti said...

Oh I love this post, Ruth! LOL when I read about your natural response to talk like the other person in your conversation. And Dr. Pam, how inspirational can it get!? Thanks for sharing. I love to read such an uplifting story... good for her, and for you too to have such an influential mentor.

Ruth said...

Babs, I've had a hard time letting go of connecting with people who didn't want to be connected with, so I think I know what you mean.

Ultimately we all want to be witnessed, I think, listened to. Well writers and bloggers anyway!

Ruth said...

Dusti, thank you for your beautiful expressions. You are so kind to me.

Ruth said...

Ellen, Pam is a natural wonder. And I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who does this, though I've become more conscious of it over the years and have toned it down some.

Ruth said...

Mary, now as we anticipate a new life in the family, our gestating grandchild, I keep thinking about the ways this person will be shaped, and by whom, and the wonder of it.

Ruth said...

Maureen, I love the story! And I'm wondering which language he gave directions in?

Ruth said...

Thanks for reading, Marcie. Truth is we also get inspiration from each other, and it carries over when we hang up the phone. For instance, when I look at your photographs, I'm inspired to look for light in something I want to write about.

Stratoz said...

smiling, since I love your stories. umlauts--- love them!
Anne Lamott--- adore. one of the writers who showed me a different God then the one I had left
and what can be said for Dr Pam--- hip hip hurray

Ruth said...

Thanks, Hedge. The truth is I don't know how some people survive the down-talking they receive much of their life, especially while young. Thankfully Pam had incredibly strong and encouraging parents whose voices rang truer than that high school counselor.

As for mimicry, as we get closer to baby's arrival, I keep picturing those first learned speech patterns, and how important listening is.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Arti. Pam deserves a lot of praise, from a lot of people who got inspired to look beyond what others used to fence them in. Freedom to be your best self!

Ruth said...

Oh thanks, Stratoz, and it's great to see you're back.

It took me long enough to read Lamott. I've seen her praised all around, and finally it was a high school student, prospective college student who visited me in my office, who said I must read Bird by Bird. There can't be anyone like her. I've read that she has a different spirituality . . . haven't gotten there yet in the book.

Margaret said...

...speaking louder and slower in English doesn't work in foreign places? :) ha ha

I got a bit teary eyed reading this about that wonderful woman! What an inspiration. With this I will end my morning of blogging and hug her close to me for the rest of the day! :)

Shaista said...

I absolutely love this post - and perhaps it won't sound strange - but just yesterday, at lunch, a friend was discussing the annoying (his word) practise in Athens of total strangers leaping into cabs, and joining you part of the way (so very un-English - can you even imagine an English person doing that?!) Anyway, my uncle, who was also at lunch, immediately told us about the dolmus in Istanbul... and now I visit you, and here we are, sharing the same conversation across seas, as though we are in the same metaphorical taxi :)

Dr Pam sounds and looks tremendous. And here too I am dolmus-ing. I have decided to apply for postgrad studies - no one knows yet, tell you more later, but that photograph of Dr Pam telling you "You made it happen"... well, it is very imspiring to me today :)

amy@ Souldipper said...

My whole heart chakra opened and I feel so much love for Dr. Pam. Thank you for letting me know she exists. In your telling, you reveal so much about you. I respect you so very much.

Bird by Bird! Yes...Annie made me want to write just like her, as well! So raw. So real. I don't remember the exact line, but I have not forgotten the impact of the visual of the cat lapping vodka from its dish.

Ginnie said...

Ohhhh, I remember Dr. Pam. What a fabulous reminder of her, Ruth.

Hmmmm. Now you've got me thinking about how maybe I can learn Dutch faster and easier: just start mimicking the way they say things. Well, actually, sometimes I do and that's part of the hoot of it. I'll have to tell this to Astrid. :)

Jeanie said...

I love this post, hearing about Dr. Pam, and also about your experiences in Turkey. It all fits so well together -- and by the way, if I could write like Anne Lamott, I'd be just happy!

The Solitary Walker said...

I know exactly what you mean about 'adapting' to others in conversation. i do this myself. (Actually, I think many people with more than an ounce of empathy and sensitivity do this automatically). I myself am a naturally shy person. But when meeting larger-than-life characters (which I often did in the publishing world) I found I often surprised myself when pushed. Though it doesn't work so well the other way, does it? If a person bores me to death with, say, arrogant and self-important talk, I can't stand it, and if possible give my excuses and leave, rather than adopt some inauthentic role.