I have noticed something when speaking to people who have been brought up in the United States. They seem very articulate. We would see students on the television confidently giving their views and learning to justify them. When I enquired about this I learned that to be articulate, to express one’s views and to take part in debate, was part of being a democracy. So there was the cultural link. Being articulate and being a good democratic citizen went together.
Living here, I have also noticed that, well, Americans are so articulate. Of course this is a generalization. There are lots of other people who are articulate, and lots of Americans who are shy. It’s just that for this reflection, the starting point for me was being made aware of a number of Americans who were so articulate, in a mellifluous kind of a way. Maybe this is the point I am trying to pin down.
When I think of how Italians speak, it is full of emotion, but the emotion flows and every one in Italy takes this for granted, and works around it, I guess. When I think about how articulate English people speak, there is sometimes a lot of reserve. Reserve is how we might characterize the Anglo Saxon way. But sometimes there emotion too, but as I perceive it, the emotion comes out in ‘lumps’ or ‘bursts’.
Since coming here I have had a number of encounters with American people, who have expressed views with which I have wanted to disagree. But these views were expressed in such a flowing way! There was little emotion, but a steady stream of views about which I wanted to say ‘If I were you, I would be ashamed to say that!’ or ‘I disagree with what you are saying.’
So before I get hung, drawn and quartered by all those of US Citizenship, please understand: I am not saying anything about Americans as such, but trying to understand my own process of ‘giving voice to’ ideas and opinions, and the place of emotion in that process.
When thinking back on my own growing up two things that impinge on this topic come to mind. The first is that being in a religious household only certain answers to questions were acceptable. I used to joke that in a Christian house, a child could get by with only two answers to every question ‘Yes’ (as in ‘Have you been good children today?’ ‘Yeeeees’ ) and ‘Jesus’ (as in ‘And who is your savior?’…’Jeeesuuuus!’) Although it is probably true that lots of other, secular families had rules as to what was an acceptable answer, growing up in our household, which was a religious one, meant that the answers that were ‘acceptable’ were of a religious nature. So we learned to ‘give the right answer’. The punishment for not giving the right answer was some kind of shame or rejection. So more than learning to give the right answer, we learned to be ashamed of our real answers. The end result of that was that we forgot what the real answers were.
So when I hear ‘Americans’ saying things in smooth, mellifluous tones, which I think are unacceptable today, or wrong, I start by saying to myself ‘How can they say that?’ But I end up admiring people whose sense of themselves is so strong, that ‘views’, whatever they are, will not be censored, but expressed calmly and smoothly.
This, I have spent a long time learning to do!
The next step in this process is for me to ask ‘So how does one offer an alternative view during a conversation with an articulate stranger? Is it all right in these circumstances to say ‘Well, I hear what you are saying, but I can’t agree with you there.’ Would I damage the relationship? By this I mean that the question is: ‘OK, so there are some people who have grown up with the confidence of self, not to censor their stream of consciousness, but who are able to offer the contents of their minds in a flowing way. But then is the opposite also acceptable? Can I offer the contents of my mind in a calm and flowing way, yet as a corrective, or as a disagreement? Will that spoil the relationship?’
In that case, I am thinking ‘This calm, articulate flow of ideas is not meant to be corrected or expanded. I am not meant to offer an alternative, but simply to accept what the other says.’ Then articulateness is a form of intimidation because its purpose is not to invite an exchange, but to prevent an exchange.
So in this situation, I am faced with a boundary that needs to be crossed. I can either stay on my side of the fence and accept the words of the other, or I can act in the same ‘cultural manner’ and offer a contrary view. This to me means taking a risk. It means asking the question ‘Is there enough love here to sustain a certain amount of difference?’ And the love goes both ways: toward them, and toward me.
If I risk the love of the other person, we might end up closer together through my having expressed another view, within the cultural framework where ‘exchange of views’ is normal. This requires time, and testing of the waters, so that love can grow. It involves getting to know another culture so that their ways are not mis-interpreted by me.
But to reply also involves a love and respect for myself that allows my own views to be formulated expressed calmly. If I am not ‘flowing’ as a person (from which we get the word mellifluous) then my ‘self’ is going to come out in a ‘lumpy’ fashion. It will come out in ‘spurts’ or as an explosion, because there has been so much repression that by the time any flow happens, it is to much! If I were an Italian, then I can imagine that emotion is a normal part of every conversation, and so is like ‘noise’. It is ignored while the content is heard. But for me, being also sensitive, the emotion in my voice is either the result of not being able to be articulate, or,sometimes, like the ‘smooth flow’ I noticed above, a kind of application of ‘force’ that helps me to get my way. But this is not loving either.
What is true for me, and I suspect for many others, is that it is difficult to find our voices, in a calm way. The key for me in learning how to find my voice over a long time is the confidence that comes from knowing that I am loved. In a deeper way, one does need only two answers to solve this question of ‘voice’ and ’emotion’ and ‘difference’: again, ‘Yes’ and ‘Jesus’ as in ‘Are you good boys and girls?’ ‘Yes!’ and who loves you? ‘Jesus!!!’