(Don’t) Correct Me If I’m Wrong

A few months ago, during a t’ai chi class, my teacher singled me out to show the class how not to perform a certain movement. While he may have been right about my mistake, I felt an immediate physical reaction to this attention. My face flushed, my heart began to pound, and I stifled the urge to say something I’d later regret. My reaction seemed way out of proportion to the events taking place; the teacher was not being unkind, but was fulfilling his role as someone trying to help me get better at my t’ai chi practice. Still, the embarrassed anger I felt seemed to come from a deep place; it reminded me of similar incidents in childhood where I felt powerless and upset about being corrected in front of other people.

The potential for this kind of humiliation was especially high in situations involving athletic activity, and in school I dreaded gym class more than anything. I feared being made fun of, of ending up in last place, of simply making a fool of myself. When my husband and I started dating, it was a sign of our clear compatibility when we both admitted to loathing gym class. I always thought gym class was torture because I had no athletic ability, but now I realize that it was my introverted nature that held me back. My fear of being embarrassed or humiliated kept me from jumping in wholeheartedly, and meant that I didn’t learn what I needed to learn in order to succeed.

I think if there had been more understanding from the adults involved, it would have helped me enormously. I find it so valuable that writers like Marti Olsen Laney are now trying to provide parents and educators with information about how to deal specifically with introverted children (see her book, The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child). On her Web site Laney advises parents of introverted children to “Never correct your child in front of others,” and to “Let them watch before entering an activity.” I think these are both helpful ideas for any adult working with introverted children.

While it was hard as a child to escape these kinds of situations, as an adult I like to think that I have more control over my environment. And now that I know my own tendencies, perhaps I can be a little easier on myself when embarrassing things happen. I also take comfort in the fact that I’m not alone; as Nancy Fenn notes in another of her Top 10 Ways to Market to Introverts, “Introverts are greatly afraid of making mistakes in public and of humiliation in public during a learning period.”

Armed with this knowledge, I hope that I can make the best out of the current “learning period” I’m in. Although I have taken French classes in the past, our move to Paris has meant dusting off those skills, and realizing how much I have to relearn. Before we moved here I was greatly looking forward to this process, but now that we are here, I feel as if I’ve hit a wall. Making conversation with strangers is not always easy for me in English, and it is accordingly harder in a language I’m unsure in. I dread saying the wrong thing, or drawing a blank during an important conversation, or most horrifyingly of all, being ridiculed for my mistakes. With all this in mind, it’s definitely easier for me not to make the effort than to dive in and do it. So how do I honor my introverted nature while still working towards my goal of becoming more fluent in French?

I think I have to remember to breathe, and to give myself time to collect my thoughts in the moment, without feeling pressured to respond immediately. This may annoy those I’m speaking to (whose words are coming at me in a nonstop barrage), but I think it’s the only way I can stay calm enough to remain engaged and active in the conversation. But it’s easier said than done.

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10 Responses to “(Don’t) Correct Me If I’m Wrong”

  1. William said:

    Thanks for your thoughtful posts; they have a lot of resonance for me.

    Regarding language-learning, three things have worked for me depending on the situation. One is that old friend of the shy, alcohol. Sober, I’m tongue-tied in Spanish, as I hear my mistakes. After a couple of beers, I notice less and care less when I do. And I know my conversational partners care less as well, which helps.

    Second, I like a setting where the encounter is expected to go on for a while, but conversation isn’t expected to be continuous. A sidewalk cafe with an engaging view can be great when there’s a lot of people to watch, or a busy waterfront to distract. Sporting events can be good, too. Dinner parties can also be good if I’m seated so that my neighbors can converse both with me and with others.

    For me, another help has been anti-anxiety medication. Xanax has been helpful for specific situations, and Buspirone as a more general way to keep my fear in line with the circumstances.

    The most interesting thing for me about this is that my discomfort in certain social situations was partly a learned thing. Now even without meds or alcohol I’m much more comfortable with things like mangling somebody else’s language. I think that’s because a recent history of not being scared has undone my built-up fear of potentially awkward social interactions.

    I hope that helps. Keep on posting!

  2. Nancy Fenn said:

    thanks for the nice mention!

  3. spectatrix said:

    Nancy:

    Your article has given me a lot of good food for thought, so thank you!

  4. KT McCann said:

    Morgen, I can relate so much to your predicament. I first took French in 7th grade, and took the first two years over and over as I progressed through different schools. My mom, on the other hand, grew up speaking French (in Ohio!) When I went to Paris to be with her when my dad died there while on vacation, I followed her along like a puppy dog, nodding and smiling like an idiot. Two times she was not available–once in the subway system and once…can’t remember…anyway, the words spewed out of me in perfect enough French to get my needs met. 2 seconds later I couldn’t have repeated the words or sentences! So miracles happen when need arises.

    MY suggestion to cope with possible ridicule–and it IS possible in Paris; they can be unkind about our arrogance expecting THEM to speak OUR language while traveling/living in THEIR country–is to be prepared to apologize about your imperfect French and thank them for correcting you, as you want to learn–that will bring you kudos for not being the arrogant american they’ve found all too often and make you friends along the way.

    I hope you’ve read Peter Mayles’ 2 books on Provence! Jealously yours, KT

  5. spectatrix said:

    William:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with language learning. I’m sure I’ll employ at least one or two of those techniques at some point. I also find it encouraging that the practice of fearlessness has become self-fulfilling for you.

    KT:

    I’ve had a few experiences lately with the language coming to me when I’ve least expected it. And strangely enough, it has been when I’ve been on my own (usually my husband Joe was with me when these situations have cropped up in the past). I’m forming a theory that when I know I can’t rely on someone else to communicate, somehow it’s much easier to take the risk of looking foolish. Maybe it’s because the person I’m speaking to is a stranger, and when I’m with someone I know, I’m more afraid of looking foolish in front of them 🙂

    I have read Peter Mayle’s books on Provence (I think there’s three of them now), and we actually saw him in person at a reading in San Francisco this past year. Both Joe and I are great fans of his, and made a trip to Provence a few years ago mainly due to his influence, so it was wonderful to hear him read his work in person!

  6. Thalasshaya said:

    i’ll second KT’s advice about simply apologizing from the outset for your poor french and forging ahead. i lived in paris for about 6 weeks as an immersion learning experience when i was in college. i had formal classes, too, but that was my first exposure to the language. immersion, in those terms, is very near drowning!

    still, i found that if i’d just try things in french, if i went slowly or stumbled, the french would smile patiently at me and offer a correction if i got something obviously wrong. it was my effort NOT to be an ugly american that saved me from being an ugly american. sometimes, if they were impatient and had the option they’d offer to switch to english for me. 🙂 other times, i learned a heckuva lot of french in the trenches.

    i never had a single bad experience with people treating me rudely or mocking my attempts. they seemed to appreciate that i was willing to try and maybe that endeared me to them a little.

  7. Chris said:

    Morgen, you have my full sympathies in your struggle with French. We are experiencing the same thing here, and although we keep at it, speaking French when we can with people on the street and especially coworkers, and studying at home, I still find myself staring blankly at people who try to talk to me, and speaking English instead of French when I can. Hang in there. A friend of ours here in Yaounde who is a translator told me recently that all of a sudden you find yourself better at a language, that it just works that way. So I guess you don’t get better in small intervals on a regular basis. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and trying to keep at it.

  8. spectatrix said:

    Chris,

    Thanks for the encouragement. I do feel like it’s getting better, but I still have moments of panic from time to time. I’m still waiting for it all to “click.” I did have a dream last night that included a few French words–not a conversation mind you–so I feel like it’s getting through in a small way.

  9. Sander said:

    I like your blog, it gives me a lot of things to think about.

    Strangely enough, for me it’s easier to speak in English than in my own language. Sure, when I was learning English in high-school, I was afraid to try to speak in front of the class or even to practice with my fellow students. But now that I’m content with my level, I feel actually more confident when I’m speaking in English with someone. I don’t know why that is. It feels like there is a buffer between me and what I’m saying. Maybe, it’s easier because I can say most things only in one way, so I don’t have to worry about choosing the right formulation.

    Anyway, it could be something to look forward to: once you speak french reasonably well, communicating with stranger might be easier.

  10. spectatrix said:

    Sander,

    That’s an interesting perspective. Maybe I’ll eventually get to that point too, once my French improves.