Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Just Smile and Nod
Let me begin by saying that I am an extremely awkward person. Not only do I trip over invisible things and fall over standing still, I have a really hard time making small talk with strangers and feel like I get lost in large groups where I don’t know anyone. As you might imagine, it was really difficult for me to transition into being a writing consultant, where my job requires me to confront my awkwardness head on and deal with strangers on a daily basis. With nearly two years of consulting under my belt, my confidence has definitely grown, and I find that I am better able to handle my awkwardness. Believe it or not, sometimes I can even use it to my advantage! My original fears have morphed into an assurance that I can handle any situation I’m thrown into, and recently I had a chance to test that theory.
Allow me to back track a little, if you will. Last summer, our writing center started a special English conversation program, where international students looking to practice their English could come in and meet with the same consultant twice a week. The topics we talked about ranged from television shows to cooking to the reasons why profanity is generally avoided in classroom settings. These conversation appointments were very relaxed, and allowed me a unique opportunity to build a relationship with people I might not have met otherwise. Enter Lacey (name changed), a grad student from China. The two of us bonded early on over NCIS and our common disdain for certain parts of the American education system. (I’m only a junior and I already have senioritis—yikes!) We became friends, and we occasionally went out for coffee or chatted over Facebook, though both of those things dwindled once the semester was in full swing.
Last week, I heard from Lacey for the first time in a while. She told me that her parents were going to be visiting from China, and invited me to meet them at a small, informal party at her apartment. I jumped at the chance, and accepted her invitation.
I arrived at the party a little early, and I was the only native English speaker in the room. Granted, Lacey and her friend were there, and they both speak English really well, but I found myself in a whirlwind of Mandarin Chinese, where all I could do was smile and nod. Lacey tried to translate for me as much as possible, but sometimes there were things that were simply untranslatable, or the translation came so late that the funny moment had passed. So I found myself sitting there, wondering what in the world I was going to do. I had never felt more awkward in my life.
Wasn’t my writing center training supposed to prepare me for situations like this? Sure, we’ve never actually talked about what to do when you don’t speak the same language as the people around you, but surely there was something from all of those staff meetings and classes that would help me figure out what to do.
As it turns out, I did have the tools in my tool belt to handle the situation, I just had to put on my writing consultant hat and remind myself to be calm in the face of this uncertain situation.
First of all, being a writing consultant has taught me to be okay with silence. Before I became a consultant, I would try to fill silences with jokes or idle chatter, which ended up making the situation more awkward. So when we were sitting around Lacey’s table stuffing our faces with delicious (and authentic!) Chinese food and the conversation lapsed, I didn’t feel like I had to fill the gap. After all, half of the people in the room wouldn’t have been able to understand me anyway.
Also, my writing center training made me more aware than ever of the body language of those around me, and I discovered that I could use that to my advantage. I may not have known what everyone was saying, but I could tell from the way they leaned toward each other that the conversation was good-natured and upbeat. My own body language became important, too, since I didn’t want to come across as standoffish or rude.
In the end, though, it was something that I learned inherently through my work as a writing consultant that became the most important. I had to be flexible and adapt myself to the situation, much like I would in a writing consultation. In some writing consultations, I find that my normal consulting style doesn’t necessarily work well, and I have to come up with a new plan of action, all the while making sure that my client feels comfortable and is getting what he or she needs. The situation I found myself in was not necessarily the most uncomfortable one I’ve ever been in, but it did require me to step outside of my proverbial comfort zone and rethink the way I communicate with others.
Lacey’s party ended up being a success for me in many ways. Not only did I learn how to make dumplings from scratch, but I left with a renewed sense of self-confidence, which I know will serve me well in the writing center and beyond. If there is a moral to this story—and I’m skeptical that there is—it would be this: no matter how far removed from the writing center you may feel, don’t underestimate your writing consultant superpowers. You never know when they may come in handy.
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