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Essay

Listen, look, and learn

By Samantha Loong

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I was enjoying a dinner date at a small cafe one evening, and happened to be talking in English. While I was in the middle of a sentence, a young Japanese man two tables away suddenly cut in with: “Where are you from? Hi. Hello? Excuse me? Where are you from?”

I had two choices. Option 1: Allow myself to be interrupted, and waste my precious time teaching this man some good manners. Or option 2: Ignore him.

Only I had noticed this interruption, so I decided on option 2. I hadn’t experienced being so rudely interrupted like this in a long time. Disappointingly, it’s common worldwide for two women to be having a conversation, only to find themselves interrupted by a man desperate for attention.

Being interrupted is already rude. Being interrupted mid-sentence is even ruder. Being interrupted mid-sentence with “Where are you from?” is quite possibly one of the worst first impressions you can give.

“Where are you from?” is one of the first questions English learners get taught and one of the first questions they ask. Unfortunately it’s a divisive one. As writer and photographer Taiye Selasi said in a TED Talk, when you ask an immigrant, “Where are you from?” they can hear, “Why are you here?” It’s not a good idea to open a conversation with this.

So, what’s the alternative? I always tell my students to think of conversations as driving. In order to be a good driver, you should always check to see what the other cars are doing. If you want to go into the same lane as another car, you should indicate. Cars might let you into that lane, or they might not. Don’t make any sudden movements, or you’ll cause an accident. In the case of our fellow diner, rather than watch the traffic, he just decided to swerve into our lane.

To be a gold star driver of conversations, first, you need to listen. Listen for something you have in common. If you can’t catch what’s being discussed, look around you. Look for something you have in common. Maybe it’s the food. You could ask for a recommendation. But before you open your mouth to ask or say anything, listen again. Listen for a good time to speak. Don’t interrupt. Listen and look for signs that people want to let you in.

While it’s possible our neighbour’s intention was to start a friendly conversation, he only succeeded in coming across as rude and arrogant.

If only he had used the three L’s: Listen, look, listen again. Good speakers ― people worth listening to ― are also good listeners. So if you really think people should listen to you, perhaps you should listen to them first.

聞いて、見て、知る

ある晩、筆者が友人との食事とおしゃべりを楽しんでいると、近くの席にいた日本人男性が “Where are you from?”と言って突然割り込んできた。その失礼な行動に筆者は…?

The Japan Times ST: June 2, 2017

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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2017年10月27日号    試読・購読   デジタル版
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