The Difficulties of Learning to Speak American

Contrary to conventional wisdom, ordinary life is not full of surprises -- they are few and far between.  But recently I got a welcome surprise courtesy of American Thinker publishing my adventures with the Tea Party as an emigrant from the USSR.  Now I know how Lord Byron felt when he woke up one day and found himself famous.  Granted, a simple essay is not quite the same as the first chapters of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, but, adjusted for cultural inflation, we are coming pretty close.

Among very astute comments posted by AT readers, one of the most frequently asked questions was "Why do so few immigrants from totalitarian countries, especially the Soviet Union, speak out about their experiences?" Let me suggest three reasons: different upbringing, lack of civic vocabulary, and conformity.

One of the first things that amazed me in the U.S. was people speaking well at the drop of a hat.  You go to a small local township meeting and see a very senior citizen having trouble getting up, but as soon as she opens her mouth you are listening to a regular Cicero!  There are so many debating teams, motivational speakers, public speaking consultancies, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, that the hot air generated by the industry could satisfy the green energy demand of the whole country (not that we need it that much!).

On the other hand, if you had the misfortune of growing up in a Communist society, learning to keep your mouth shut in public was a matter of survival.  The less your voice was heard, the better chance you had of getting through life reasonably unscathed.  For anything to be said in public, from a short announcement to a lecture on some obscure subject, you'd have submitted your speech for a seal of approval from an appropriate authority (in Russian it was called "zalitovano," e.g. having a stamp from the censorship office, going by the acronym LITO), and you'd have read the text word for word -- so no extemporizing.  After spending so many years learning to play mute, it's really difficult to find your voice.

Secondly, coming from a country with no tradition of political discourse, people are not exactly adroit in using the right language.  Every time you offer an opinion chances are good that you'll hit a sacred cow.  You don't really understand why this particular cow is sacred while some others are not, but the queasy feeling persists, and conversation goes nowhere.  Remember the old phrase "two countries divided by common language"?  It's a perfect description of thousand of conversations between new immigrants and American-born citizens.  They use the same terms but mean different things.  It's not very conducive to mutual understanding.  For instance, a few days after the 9/11 attack, my young daughter remarked on how nice it was to see every house in our neighborhood flying the American flag, adding, "I know you and dad were always patriotic without such a display, but you never said that out loud!"  I explained that I had had the phrase "You Russians are crazy!" addressed to me so many times that I stopped talking on any subject outside my professional expertise.

The last and, to my mind, the most relevant point is that environment does matter.  People naturally want to blend into society instead of sticking out.  If the cultural noise surrounding you is monotonous and there is no alternative tune, the result is entirely predictable.  You sing the same as everyone else. When my husband and I are introduced as "old friends, wonderful people despite being conservative" by folks with the life story identical to ours, the obvious answer to the puzzle is to look where they live and how they are making a living. Could you say Massachusetts fast enough?  California?  New York?

All of the above is fairly intuitive, but most of us used to be too timid to do something about it.  Let's hope the change is on the way, one person at a time.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, ordinary life is not full of surprises -- they are few and far between.  But recently I got a welcome surprise courtesy of American Thinker publishing my adventures with the Tea Party as an emigrant from the USSR.  Now I know how Lord Byron felt when he woke up one day and found himself famous.  Granted, a simple essay is not quite the same as the first chapters of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, but, adjusted for cultural inflation, we are coming pretty close.

Among very astute comments posted by AT readers, one of the most frequently asked questions was "Why do so few immigrants from totalitarian countries, especially the Soviet Union, speak out about their experiences?" Let me suggest three reasons: different upbringing, lack of civic vocabulary, and conformity.

One of the first things that amazed me in the U.S. was people speaking well at the drop of a hat.  You go to a small local township meeting and see a very senior citizen having trouble getting up, but as soon as she opens her mouth you are listening to a regular Cicero!  There are so many debating teams, motivational speakers, public speaking consultancies, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, that the hot air generated by the industry could satisfy the green energy demand of the whole country (not that we need it that much!).

On the other hand, if you had the misfortune of growing up in a Communist society, learning to keep your mouth shut in public was a matter of survival.  The less your voice was heard, the better chance you had of getting through life reasonably unscathed.  For anything to be said in public, from a short announcement to a lecture on some obscure subject, you'd have submitted your speech for a seal of approval from an appropriate authority (in Russian it was called "zalitovano," e.g. having a stamp from the censorship office, going by the acronym LITO), and you'd have read the text word for word -- so no extemporizing.  After spending so many years learning to play mute, it's really difficult to find your voice.

Secondly, coming from a country with no tradition of political discourse, people are not exactly adroit in using the right language.  Every time you offer an opinion chances are good that you'll hit a sacred cow.  You don't really understand why this particular cow is sacred while some others are not, but the queasy feeling persists, and conversation goes nowhere.  Remember the old phrase "two countries divided by common language"?  It's a perfect description of thousand of conversations between new immigrants and American-born citizens.  They use the same terms but mean different things.  It's not very conducive to mutual understanding.  For instance, a few days after the 9/11 attack, my young daughter remarked on how nice it was to see every house in our neighborhood flying the American flag, adding, "I know you and dad were always patriotic without such a display, but you never said that out loud!"  I explained that I had had the phrase "You Russians are crazy!" addressed to me so many times that I stopped talking on any subject outside my professional expertise.

The last and, to my mind, the most relevant point is that environment does matter.  People naturally want to blend into society instead of sticking out.  If the cultural noise surrounding you is monotonous and there is no alternative tune, the result is entirely predictable.  You sing the same as everyone else. When my husband and I are introduced as "old friends, wonderful people despite being conservative" by folks with the life story identical to ours, the obvious answer to the puzzle is to look where they live and how they are making a living. Could you say Massachusetts fast enough?  California?  New York?

All of the above is fairly intuitive, but most of us used to be too timid to do something about it.  Let's hope the change is on the way, one person at a time.

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