Reading previous posts by JoAnn and Cheney cast a few questions on my own skills at small talk. For some reason, living in Manila has alienated me from strangers or happenstance acquaintances. The streets, marketplace, and malls draw crowds, and any potential kindred spirit is blanked out as just a face. I always mistake small talk as an exercise in social graces, deployed indoors and in more “genteel” spaces such as schools and offices. Even there, in those centers of civilization, I feel menaced by the slow-going quality of communication, the emptiness of exchange.
I’m saying this in opposition to the moments I had been called in for “big talk,” for lack of a better and more contrasting term. For some years I’ve been learning French. The highlight of this year was a test for French level certification, and in one part of the test, we were required to deliver a debate-worthy speech for ten minutes. The point of that exercise, I guess, was to imagine oneself in a higher discursive function, influencing opinion (and a grade) through sheer rhetoric. Fair deal, except that I knew I might have to fatally invoke the weather should my limited vocabulary blow the winds that way. Thus arose my recent disdain for small talk, that stylistic cul de sac in which no one wants to be trapped, least of all an expectant linguistic jury from a polemic-loving country.
The more I equip myself with languages and the ways of the world, the harder it is to generally get into conversations. Talking in English is hard enough. Despite the many ways Filipinos flatter themselves with their English fluency, I doubt this has cultivated an ease with which to make sense of their daily lives, share insights, or go into an impersonal but entertaining banter with a passerby, something, I’ve been told, is the impressive province of the British. I am more likely to detonate into a stream of Tagalog curses to communicate disagreeable feelings more eloquently than lapse into a translation in the standard native, inexact English, or long-shot French.
I’d probably be eternally learning that third language. Anyway, having been reared in the humanities and social sciences in college, I could find longer use for it than any index of books. The tomes of French intellectuals like Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault, frequently cited in anthropological theory, are more comprehensible sans translation. However, I will forever be culturally checked by this unknowable stranger — an entire country with a foreign thrum whose influence only ever leached into my life through books, theory, overheard conversations from a faint number of French expats in Manila, and classes at Alliance Francaise. Nonetheless, my social life, previously greased by two working languages (Tagalog and English), is now further interrogated without flow by a third one.
This third language is naturally a cultural brainwash of sorts and, consequently, a frequent adaptive failure on my part. It’s weird and educational to be confronted by foreignness at every attempt to pronounce a more collapsed ‘e’ and a strong, throat-chafing ‘r’. By phonetics and morphology alone, I get trapped in a humorless conversation with myself. Often, on that road to a more comfortable level, I don’t even know what I’m inwardly on to. This confusion is further compounded by what I read about the country — I am moved half the time by those ideas—that distant French Revolution and its ideals tainted by bourgeois corruption — but most of the time I conduct a random expose on myself for being culturally indifferent. Learning a third language, I think, rendered small talk irrelevant. The wine and the cheese and the Eiffel Tower and the French national character—shouldn’t we be yearning for more intellectual snobbery than these? Nowhere do I feel more inexpressive than in knowing that my linguistic limits are also a half-hearted intake of the unfamiliar and the cliché.
Then comes another layer of questioning: am I learning a new language so I could have a more expansive view of others? Or do I apply it to my daily, roundabout greetings by dropping an existential line about political moods? French may not be my casual form of address, but perhaps I could add a French-ness to my Tagalog, another cultural spin for “have you eaten?”, and by then, I could lift the mental block.