There is a Seinfeld episode where Elaine goes to a Vietnamese nail salon and gets frustrated because she thinks everyone is saying mean things about her. It can be a natural human emotion to believe if someone says something you don't understand and then they laugh, then they must be talking about you. This week I had to remind both my son and my husband that it is so important to fight that natural fear. I challenged both of them to think of a time when they were in a room full of English speakers where someone else in the room didn’t speak English. I asked them if either one of them said mean or rude things about the person who didn’t speak English. Both of them said "of course not, why would I do that". And I responded "then why do you think the French are talking about you?".
It seems so obvious when you look at it like that but in them moment, it can be hard to remember that just because you don’t understand what someone is saying doesn’t mean it has anything to do with you. In the United States, this is a skill we don’t get to practice very often. We almost always hear English everywhere we go. Rarely are we in a situation where we are the only person in a room who doesn't speak the primary language of the room. In Europe, things are so different. Countries are the size of states and many times the country next door doesn’t speak the same language. This gives the Europeans a very different perspective when it comes to communication. This perspective has helped to shape my attitude. I almost never think people are talking about me if they say something I don't understand followed by laughter.
The people I work with at ISPED have been so helpful in helping me see this and in getting me to try to speak French. In general, I do understand what people are saying. Occasionally they speak so quickly that I don’t know what was said but if I ask them to slow down, I can sometimes pick it back up. I am truly enjoying the challenge of trying but it is sometimes exhausting. Most of the people at the office do speak English but some do not. The seminars are a mix of French and English. When it comes to my own scientific communication, I really prefer to use English. I am giving a talk next week and it will be in English. I think deep down there are still parts of me that identify with the Imposter Syndrome which is a feeling that happens to scientists where they don’t feel like they belong with their peers because they are not smart enough. I have talked to many of my co-workers in the States and this is a common feeling for researchers. We are taught to question everything so why not our own intelligence.
Anyways, that does make me prefer English for communicating science at work. That said, my primary liaison here has been great about pushing me to try social events in French. Tonight in order to celebrate public health, the center I work within is having a movie screening of Still Alice. We do a good bit of research related to dementia so before the movie, there will be a lively debate on dementia and public health. I always feel nervous when I head out to one of these events but I am truly grateful for the opportunity to keep trying to expand my French.