Editor's note: This is a guest post from fellow polyglot Stu Jay Raj. He has a fluent command of 13 languages, and can get by pretty well in 15 other ones. He has had his own TV show in Thailand, worked as an interpreter for Miss Universe, as well as working on many other cross-cultural projects. I'm a big fan of his and have referenced his advice before.
I'm very reluctant to reveal too much about this subject. It's very personal, very effective and if used in the wrong way, can do a lot of damage. When I sit down and think about my long term affair with language over the years though, this is an inextricable part of who I am and how my languages came to be. It could well be the Holy Grail that fuels my insatiable desire to devour languages. Given that, I think it warrants sharing it with you.
The Phone Call
I received a phone call from a close friend in Bangkok (names have been changed to protect the innocent :)):
“Hey Jay, I think you should give Matthew a call – he's pretty upset with you!”
“What? He's one of my best friends? What on earth would he be upset with me about?”
“The other night a bunch of you were out having dinner and there was a girl there that he liked. He said that you were hitting on her and she ended up more interested in you and as a result it's totally killed his confidence in situations like that now. I think he will think twice before he goes anywhere with you in the future. You better give him a call man!”
“Hitting on her?!”
“Yeah, you went off in Thai with all the people at the table and even though he speaks Thai, he was totally lost as to what you were all talking about and why it was even that interesting. They seemed to be having such a great time though, he just stayed quiet, faded into the distance and went home (alone) afterward”.
Hearing this, I felt like I had been kicked in the guts. There's no way that I would intentionally do something like that to my best friend. ‘Mates before Dates‘ … or in other parts of the world ‘Bro's before …'… you know.
Don't go in Search of Lice to Put on Your Own Head
One thing being a polyglot, is that you realise that through language you wield an enormous advantage over most of the other people in most social settings where there are people (especially ‘key' people) that speak ‘your languages' present. It's fun to have and exercise that power, but sometimes it's more important to know when to just sit quiet and give the floor to other people. You may be extremely successful in attracting people of the opposite sex, but what value does that have if you lose good friends and create new enemies? As they say in Thai – อย่าหาเหามาใส่หัว /ya ha hao sai hua/ (Don't go in search of lice to put on your own head!)
POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WARNING
Some of what you are about to read might not be politically correct in your part of the world. When learning languages and learning about new cultures however, sometimes we need to put our politically correct paradigms aside at least temporarily until we start to get a handle on the language and culture. In the initial stages, we need to be of a mindset where we're willing to try our best to learn to think through the minds of the people that speak that language.
If you think you're up to it, the following information could have a profound impact on your life.
Do you have what it takes to read on…?
Languages and Social Engineering
I admit… even though I was shocked to hear that my friend felt so bad after that dinner that we all had together, I wasn't shocked to hear that ‘someone' felt like that. It wouldn't have been the first time.
Getting to a fluent level of language in any language means that at some time you've had to do some degree of social engineering. You've had to find ways of getting past those barriers that normal learners of that language have come up against. You've found creative ways of smashing through the glass ceiling.
Having been a Dale Carnegie trainer for many years, I learned that his 4th Human Relations Principle is the key to learning from your environment – “Talk in terms of the other person's interest”. After a while, knowing how to spark off an ‘interesting conversation' with a crowd of people (or an individual) becomes second nature. The things you talk about, idioms you use, rhythms of speech and level of ‘cheekiness' might not be in the slightest bit interesting nor appropriate in your own language and culture, but in THAT environment, it just works. If you want to learn to speak like a native in another language, you need to know how to get people talking about what they like talking about. You need to become in their eyes an ‘interesting person'. They need to feel that speaking with you isn't a chore and is a good investment in their time.
Once you can do that, there are ways then of developing mega-language-skills by stealth. An article I wrote entitled ‘Walking Dictionaries' goes into detail about different techniques that will help you learn by stealth.
Neil Strauss' ‘The Game' Holds Some Valuable Lessons for Language Learners
I first read Neil Strauss‘ book ‘The Game‘ back in 2005. As I read through the book and saw how he and Mystery operated , I realised that so many of the tools and techniques that were brilliantly conceptualised in the book and by others in the ‘Seduction Community' like Ross Jeffries and David D'Angelo were things that I had learned over the years by default through having to find creative ways of getting past the walls that native speakers of a language throw in your way when learning that language.
The Dark Art of Negging
|NEG – noun: an ambiguous statement or seemingly accidental insult delivered to a beautiful woman a pickup artist has just met, with the intent of actively demonstrating to her (or her friends) a lack of interest in her. For example “Those are nice nails; are they real?” 2. Verb: to actively demonstrate a lack of interest in a beautiful woman by making an ambiguous statement, insulting her in a way that appears accidental, or offering constructive criticism.|
I say that Negging is a Dark Art for a reason. I have learned by painful experience that when negging is used in the wrong way, it can totally destroy a person and in return, it will come back and destroy YOU. In saying that, there are some circumstances where you need to bring out the big guns if you're going to make any positive progress. If you've assessed the situation and the person you're targeting properly, and truly believe that the end result of a ‘neg' will be something positive for both of you, negging might be just the tactic you need to use to break down psychological barriers that have been put up either intentionally or subconsciously between you and that person.
When is it O.K. to Neg?
First of all, we need to understand what a neg achieves. From experience, a neg set to the right level of potency and timed properly will in one fell swoop cause the person being targeted by the neg reassess their natural instinct, reaction or impression of a person, situation, thing or most powerfully, themselves.
Why would you ever want to cause someone to do that?
This is when the language stuff kicks in. For anyone who has ever traveled to another country to learn a language, let me ask you this question…What is one of the most frustrating things that happens when trying to learn a language in-country?
I bet I know what a good proportion of you are saying…
“No matter how much I try to speak in their language, people just speak back to me in English”
This happens for several reasons depending on where you are. Here are my top 3 reasons as to why I think this happens:
- Priorities – People are more interested in learning and practicing English and achieving other things on their agenda than helping you learn their language
- Presumption – People just assume that you're going to speak English and don't even realise that you're trying to speak their language
- Precaution – People feel exposed that you as a foreigner can speak their language and understand their ‘inner workings' and prefer to use English as a mask to keep you at an arm's (or in this case a tongue's) distance
Believe it or not, out of Priorities, Presumption and Precaution, I encounter Precaution more than the other two.
Even so, all of us when meeting someone will have these three variables running in different proportions. It's in understanding our own, and anticipating as best we can those of the people we're talking to that we can get an upper hand in a social context and after the initial shock, make a positive impression.
It's when you get to this level that you realise that language isn't just ‘language'. Language isn't just a bunch of words and grammatical rules in some encrypted code that if you crack and assemble in the right way you'll be able to communicate with the people who speak it.
Language is people's identity. When you hear a person speak in their mother tongue, you're hearing ‘THEM'. The idioms they use, the little subconscious mutterings and tag words they pepper their speech with, the words they choose to describe a thought and the shades of meaning they paint their world with are all indicators of who they are. In a way, through revealing our mother tongue, we're showing ourselves naked to the world.
Case Study – Thailand
Shielding our Identity with Language
In Thailand, whether it's a bar-girl with her ‘Farang' (foreign) guests, a transvestite with their surreal westerner bubble world or a person who has struggled to lift themselves out of the socioeconomic pigeon hole that they were born into by targeting western employers so that they can be promoted based on performance and not skin colour, a foreign language for many is a comfortable sleeve that they can live within and function in. They operate in a new temporal world that they have created for themselves and will conveniently ‘de-sleeve' whenever necessary. They ‘de-sleeve' to go back to their normal ‘selves' that are socially acceptable amongst family and old friends sans the scent of those uncouth outsiders. For many of these people, the ability to perform and prove themselves in a ‘Farang' environment is key to theirs and their family's economic stability and in turn local social acceptance. In there is the rub!
How do you achieve parallel social acceptance in two seemingly opposing worlds?
When someone who is living in such an epi-cultural / linguistic ‘sleeve’ like this comes across someone that isn’t in at least their mind ‘one of them', but can speak to them in their own language, speak to them about things that resonate with their ‘inner heart' , understand concepts that their ‘base psyche' is built on and understand every little nuance that they use in their own language, they could well feel extremely threatened.
So here's a hypothetical scene that you might come across in Bangkok. You're at a networking event of about 100 people. 80% of the people are westerners and 20% are Thais. Of the Thais there, 80% are women working as ambassadors for their companies to try and find potential western clients. They believe that they were employed for their abilities in English and need to prove that they can ‘swim', not ‘sink' in a ‘Farang' environment.
Let's suppose that my own personal goal is to get past the barriers that a girl is going to put up in front of me and have her speak to me openly, sincerely and revealing things about herself that she mightn't have imagined that she would reveal about herself on a first encounter.
Priorities, Preconceptions and Precaution
This is my version of a S.W.A.T. analysis that I would do mentally when approaching the person in question.
WARNING: Do Not Read Any Further if Your Politically Incorrect Stomach is Not Prepared
Please keep in mind what I mentioned earlier about Political Correctness. Some of the things you are about to read might sound outrageous to you with your paradigms of political correctness. My apologies in advance to anyone who is offended. You can stop reading now if you like. I do feel that I have a certain degree of authority to speak on this subject and when it comes down to it, I'm just telling you like it is in Thailand. It may not be like that for EVERYONE, but I'm sure if you asked a Thai whether this would be a fair portrayal of how many Thais feel about westerners, they would tend to agree.
So this is it. You're at the networking event, you're about to be approached by a name-card toting cute Thai employee of a western company eyeing for your business. You're not as interested in her business as you are in finding out more about who she is.
In my opinion, if you're confident with your language, it's ALWAYS best to strike first. Even if she is approaching you to give you her card, I will get in there first using more ‘native' Thai expressions, mannerisms rather than just what they would anticipate a non-Thai to use.
“Khraaap… Sawatdee Khrap… Cheu arai oei”? (คร้าบ…สวัสดีครับ ชื่ออะไรเอ่ย?)
(Hi, how are you? And who might you be?) (Note this is not the usual way a westerner would have learned to say ‘what is your name' in Thai. The word ‘oei' เอ่ย is something that is hardly ever heard coming out of the mouth of your general Farang speaking Thai).
“Oh? You Sa-peak Thai? Very good. My name is(Full Thai name rather than nickname stated) I come from ____ company. What is your company?”
“Phi Cheu Jay na khrap – laew nu la? Cheu len cheu arai khrap?” “พี่ชื่อเจนะครับ แล้วหนูล่ะ?”
(I'm Jay. What about you? What's your nickname?) –
NOTE: In Thai, you very rarely use the personal pronouns for ‘I' and ‘You'. You usually use the word for ‘older brother / sister' or ‘younger brother / sister', or family relation that someone of their age and gender would be the equivalent of if they were in your family. I chose here to use the word ‘Nu' meaning ‘mouse' which is a diminutive way of referring to a female several years younger than you. Most westerners don't really have a good handle on using these terms of address and revert to the usual ‘Phom' and ‘Khun' for ‘I' and ‘You', leaving the conversation sounding quite formal, cold and foreign.
By now, the young lady is confused and not knowing how to handle the situation. Your face and the surroundings are telling them one thing, but the conversation she's having with you is telling her another. Internally, she's probably thinking ‘what the heck!?'… ‘how do I handle this?' …'What should I do?'.
Thai women confronted by a situation like this could go either way. They could be really happy and accept you as one of them and continue the conversation with you as they would with any other Thai friend or colleague. For some others though, they might not want to accept that and they will dig their heels in and refuse to accept you as one of them and continue to speak in English.
“Wow, but your face is so Farang.”
Enter the Neg
It is in this kind of circumstance that if I have assessed the person as being able to take it, I would use a neg of some kind to throw her off guard and take control of the situation.
“You have a really cute nose, you must be from Buriram?”
Now this is EXTREMELY politically incorrect. I have many lovely friends from Buriram. The culture there is fascinating – a mixture of Thai and Cambodian language and culture used, great food and awesome people. In Thailand though, that one statement is jam packed with many ‘meta-meanings' that have the potential to throw her on the back-foot for a moment and reassess the entire situation.
The fact is that whether or not she WAS from Buriram, she would know that if a Thai said something like that it would ‘really' mean:
- You're a poor up-country farm-girl
- You're dark skinned and not attractive to most Thai men
- You have an ugly nose and ought to think about a nose-job … but you probably couldn't afford it
- You are they typical ‘spec' of what Farang men like … and we all know what kind of women they like now don't we?!
Whereas for a Westerner / Farang to ‘honestly' say that (ignorantly), it would have the meaning:
- You have a beautiful nose
- I love your dark skin colour
- Many of the girls I've dated have been from Buriram
Either way she looks at it, no matter how much she is trying to fit into the Farang social context here, for your average Thai girl that spends most of her life bathing every part of her body with skin whiteners, getting eye-lids folded, inserting contact lenses to make bigger, bluer eyes and possibly a nose job and other cosmetic surgery, a comment like this would be too much to handle. She will want to prove that she's not a ‘FARANG' style Thai and that she's a REAL, respectable, city-smart Thai women.
As she's in shock, I might say something to lighten the mood and make her laugh in Thai and then rescue the situation from there.
The Power of Just One Neg
With one Neg, I have managed to get past the sociological firewall that has been erected by a gorgeous and educated Thai lady's Priorities, Preconceptions and Precautions and am on my way to winning her as someone that I could call a friend… or more.
As I explained in my article ‘How to Become Gifted at Learning Languages‘, learning languages is all about learning ‘People'.
If you can remember at the beginning of this article, I mentioned a phone call that I received from a friend where one of my best friends had been hurt because he felt that I had intentionally called the attention of a girl he liked in my direction. While I should have been more sensitive to the situation and been more alert to the outcomes that my friend was hoping from that social interaction, as a polyglot, I almost subconsciously fall into a mode in social interactions where I will gauge and assess the people I'm speaking with, anticipate what they like and give it to them. The outcome is usually that everyone has a good time and I will have widened my network of ‘friends'. The downside is, is that if there are people there that are not involved and in tune with that interaction, it could breed hostility. Something that none of us want or need.
The Moral of This Story
- If you're going to be good at languages, you need to be good at people
- Negging is a high-powered technique that can be used to bulldoze down barriers when it looks like nothing else will work
- Don't go hunting for lice to put on your own head
If you would like to learn even more about how you can use language as a tool to take your social life into another dimension, swing by my blog at http://stujay.com and enter your name and email into the ‘JOIN NOW' section for my free Language and Mind Mastery group. You will receive my hints, tips, videos, bulletin, downloads and other awesome resources that will equip you with what you need to give you an international and social edge on your peers.
There are other awesome polyglot and language websites out there too. If you haven't done it yet, I highly recommend subscribing to Benny the Irish Polyglot's Language Hacking League [Editor's note: Sign up for free on the form on the right of this site], and take advantage of the fantastic learning strategies available at Steve Kaufman's Lingq.com language site.
I'm keen to hear about ‘social experiences' with language and culture that you've had with other languages. What ‘social lessons' have you learned through learning language? Let me know!
You can read more excellent articles from Stu Jay Raj over at his blog stujay.com, and hear an hour long interview I had with him about his unique language learning techniques as part of the Language Hacking Guide.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.