One little word can change the meaning of everything. Image from boston.com.
“I’m still coming to understand just how literal you are,” my mom once told me over a long-distance phone call. At the time, I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova and communicating daily in Romanian, though, of course, our conversation was being held in English. She had noticed that I had developed (or perhaps enhanced) a stubbornness, a preference for picking apart word choices that didn’t exactly suit the sentences, contexts, or purposes in which they were placed. This wouldn’t have been such a problem if a) I didn’t take ages trying to find the ideal word with which to express myself, or b) the sentences being picked apart didn’t come out of others’ mouths as often as they did.
It seemed my stubbornness made me difficult while speaking English, but, interestingly, flexible while speaking Romanian. While learning Romanian, this attribute invited a curiosity for learning new tenses, additional vocabulary, and appropriate idioms (which is an amusing coincidence given my literal tendency). I gave myself freedom in speaking Romanian fluidly despite a limited vocabulary and the improbability of finding the perfect word. Ah, but perhaps that was the difference between speaking the two languages; the impossibility of being perfect made being literal unnecessary.
While conversing with a coworker this week, I was reminded of the frustration this disposition can provoke. I beat a seemingly simple statement almost to its end before I could move on with the conversation simply because I became stuck on a specific interpretation of the word choice–my interpretation of the word choice, not my coworker’s. It was harmless, but post-conversation I asked myself why I couldn’t just go along with the point of the comment rather than the diction. If I knew we agreed about the premise, why get stuck?
Then I remembered that “You’re so literal” comment tossed out casually years prior by my mother. My linguistic mind wondered if I simply preferred literalness to more flexible speech while at the same time my child development-studying mind wondered if it was conscious, or health,y to have a stubborn predisposition against flexible terminology.
What’s more, why did I feel more restrained in one language than another? Perhaps I allowed myself–and others!–more wiggle room in my second language than in my first. If that was the case, I wanted it to change.
When researching people’s preference for literal speech, articles and blogs on Aspergers kept popping up. Yes, I found this amusing. I also found it simultaneously helpful and incriminating. It’s not that I can’t step outside of the literal interpretation, but that I, for some unknown and obstructive reason, temporarily choose not to. How odd.
But then another story came to mind that helped me find some sense. A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer mentioned to me that she would sometimes take offense at a Romanian comment because, when translated into English, it was cold, rude, or otherwise insulting. Yet, when she paused and swapped out just one of the words for a synonym, all of a sudden the sentence seemed much more friendly. And, really, the translating into English is done in our own minds anyway, rather than those of the speaker. From that point on, I did the same thing in Romanian and it made sense …So, if swapping synonyms can alter the insult-o-meter of a foreign sentence, can’t it alter the fixed-definition frustration of an English conversation?
While there really is no way (or need) to know if my getting stuck on word choice is conscious, predisposed, or just stuck up, it is amusing to see how it changes my mindset when moving from one language to another. Ultimately, I appreciate taking the time to choose words carefully, but I now better recognize how my own stubborn interpretation of individual words can potentially hinder the progress of true communication, literal or otherwise.