Hey you! Shhh…come closer. Can you hear me? What? Yes? Okay. I have some advice for you: please don’t ever do this.
Do what? Wait, I’ll tell you. Come closer, shhh…okay. Please don’t do this–as in whisper to someone who is still learning to speak your language.
Don’t get me wrong, whispering is useful in certain contexts. It can create a sense of intimacy between those in such close contact. It also aides privacy protection. This may be why it is one of the preferred methods of communication of thirteen year old girls–aside from texting. And texting I would argue is basically whispering in electronic form.
As a general rule cross culturally, speaking in hushed tones is a requirement in spaces such as a library, museum, church or art gallery. This is fine in your native country or in another place that speaks your native language. But when you move across the world an begin to enter these same spaces, you begin to feel your foreignness even more.
That is generally because people forget that you cannot fully understand them. The entire purpose of whispering is that it makes it difficult for other people to hear you. What your local friends fail to realize is that whispering makes it for you to fully comprehend them.
I run across this issue quite regularly in my life. Often, my Spanish teachers will want to explain or ask questions during class. Or as they warn me about a particular student, they will do so under their breaths. What they don’t realize is that my comprehension level will then sinks even lower.
Last year, I elected a friend who just happened to be a very quiet person with a low voice to be my practicing partner. While it wasn’t a complete disaster, I spent more time asking him to speak up than I did making actual conversation. The pinnacle of this was when we went to visit an exhibit at a local museum.
As we walked, he gave me a wonderful history lecture which gave context to all the works. At least, I think he did. But for all I know he could have been reciting the lyrics to his favorite 80s power ballad. I heard about every third word and understood only one of those. I didn’t want to be rude, so I smiled and nodded the whole time. All the while making a mental note to never do this type of activity with him again.
In the end, I’ve come to consider it a privilege to share such close space with people in my adopted home. These types of intimate conversations mean that people have dropped their guards around me. But until I become fluent, I will have to give them a gentle reminder: please don’t whisper anything to me if you want me to actually comprehend anything you are trying to say. I’m still learning.
Photo by marywilson’s eye