I recently finished Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes by Dan L. Everett. It was one of those books that was thrust at me the last time I saw my grandfather-in-law. It is the story of Mr. Everett learning one of the most unique Amazonian languages. It’s a language which nobody outside of this specific tribe has ever been able to successfully learn. It was a really fascinating read. It gets a bit heady in the second half, but the overall story is gripping.
Everett spent years studying their language and culture in order to successfully communicate with them. Naturally, there was a lot of miscommunication, misinterpretation. He made errors. He got laughed at. But he would try to use all of these things to learn and get better. Part of these errors came from a cultural standpoint, such as Westerners do a lot of small talk. This is a kind of speech where we aren’t gathering much useful information.
For instance, if you need to borrow a co-worker’s stapler. Unless you know that person really well you probably aren’t going to just walk up to their cube and say, “Give me your stapler.” You would most likely start off with at least a “hello” or “good morning,” followed by a “could I borrow your stapler for a moment?” And then once you return it, there will be a least a “thank you,” perhaps a follow-up nicety asking them how they are doing, which social norms say that they are to reply to with “fine” or “well” whether this is true or not. An individual in polite society is to keep their troubles to themselves. Directness is considered on most accounts rude.
Other cultures don’t always operate in this manner and can have vast differences that lead to difficult and awkward situations. Everett learned that the Amazonian tribe had no mechanism for small talk. It simply wasn’t useful. To understand the language of a people, you need to understand the people and how they tend to operate on a day to day basis. I have found that since reading this book that this philosophy applies to other things as well.
For the past two years, I’ve been taking tap dance lessons. While there are many specific steps to learn and master, a big part of it is improvising. Yes, it’s as terrifying as it sounds.
Like Everett, I fail a lot. To clarify, one can’t really “fail” in improv, but I do blank out on steps or get off beat. To me, this is what I classify as failing. The first time I was a part of an improv circle I found that people would mimic other people’s steps. I saw this as copycatting or in some ways “I can do it better than you can.” I later learned that in tap improv circles mimicking is encouraged. The concept of improv in a circle is to watch everybody and get ideas, try new things, and actually, repeating what someone else has done is a kind of compliment.
Improv circles are not a place to see who’s better than someone else, although talent does become apparent. It is a place to learn and grow. This was a bit of a foreign concept to me having participated in competition sports and competing for the best grades in uber-academic classes in high school.
As I struggle through two songs of improv that feel like they go on forever every week in tap class, I try to think of Everett and his 20-plus years of struggling in the jungle to learn bits and pieces of a rare and baffling language along with the culture of its people. I’ll improve through error just like Everett did to understand this new fascinating community that I’m slowly becoming a part of.