I recently met a man at the dog park and tried to strike up a conversation. The only thing I could gather is that he is visiting his son (and I only knew that because I recognized the dog). It’s not as though he was antisocial, in fact, he seemed very friendly and eager to chat. Unfortunately, he was visiting from China and did not speak English – and my knowledge of Mandarin, or any other Chinese dialect, is non-existent. And this made me feel stupid.
At first, we would just smile, nod and point. Since I already felt stupid, I avoided speaking. I mean, didn’t Mark Twain (or Abraham Lincoln, or a biblical proverb) say, “Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”? I figured I had nothing to lose by smiling and keeping quiet. Until a random thought occurred to me.
As I stood there smiling, I thought, what if I’m wrong? What if we can communicate? I’ve never had a need to learn Mandarin – I haven’t traveled to China and it wasn’t a language spoken at my workplace or school, so, why would I expect to be fluent enough to converse at a dog park in Texas? Likewise, I’m guessing English isn’t widely – or at all – spoken in his hometown, so maybe he hasn’t had a need to learn either. I wondered, could he have the same fears as me?
The next time I saw my new friend, he said hello. I now had a decision to make. Should I just say hello and smile as I’ve been doing for the past week? Or do I try to return the greeting in his language? I took a deep breath and opted for the latter. I smiled at my friend, said hello and asked, “how do you say hello?” He told me. We then moved on to thank you, and good-bye.
I would love to say that these three words have been easy to master and that I’m learning quickly. I would be lying – in fact, I’m pretty sure I’m butchering the language. And I still can’t remember how to say good-bye. Mandarin is difficult for me – there are so many sounds that are nothing like English, Spanish or Italian, languages with which I have some familiarity. But I’m not going to let it stop me.
Too often, we limit ourselves because we don’t want to look stupid, and yet, when we do this, we miss out on so many great opportunities to learn and grow. I call this the Stupidity Paradox. We hesitate to admit we don’t know something because we don’t want to appear stupid, and yet, if we would confess, we could learn something new. Missing out on new opportunities just seems stupid to me.
So, while I still suck at speaking Mandarin, I’ll continue to ask until I get it right. Today, I learned my new friend’s name (John). And, tomorrow, maybe I’ll remember the word for good-bye. Then again, maybe I’ll have to consult the interwebs. It doesn’t matter, as long as I keep trying.
And that will help me feel a little less stupid.