Strange how a single conversation can change you

February 18, 2009

About two weeks ago I started volunteering at the Intensive English Institute’s Convo Partner program here in Champaign. IEI is filled with international students taking intensive English classes, and the Convo Partners program allows them to be paired up with a buddy or “Convo Partner” who they meet with once a week and converse with in order to practice their English.

So, I meet with my  Convo Partner, who is from Saudi Arabia, every week. Her English isn’t too good, so sometimes we revert to my broken Arabic. Every week for an hour or two, I leave behind my laptop and work and school, shut off my Blackberry, and talk with this girl about her life. And every week,  I come away learning things I never knew I never knew. It’s surreal to be exposed to such a completely different worldview and step outside your own little bubble for a little while.

I think a lot of people, in our oversaturated, information-overloaded culture, don’t recognize the value of every single conversation you have. But to these students, every conversation is special. It’s a chance to practice their English and develop their confidence.

It’s also a chance to make friends with an American — many international students have told me that the American students they try to talk to in their classes are unfriendly and unwilling to talk to them; they’re too wrapped up in their own lives and their own friends. So as a result, they hang out exclusively with other international students who are in the same boat as them.

Hearing that almost angers me. Why are so many of us so brusque and unwilling to talk to people? It takes a lot of courage  to be an international student in America who barely speaks the language — and it takes a lot to put yourself out there and try to learn English and make new friends with people who speak the language far better than you.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my Convo Partner, it’s that a single conversation does matter. And how you treat that conversation matters.

I’ve learned to listen more than I talk.

I’ve learned to pay attention to every detail, and never, ever steal a glance at my phone or anything else.

I’ve learned to be more patient while she finds the right words.

I’ve learned to slow down from my usual breakneck pace and think through my words more.

I’ve learned to be far more understanding of where the other person is coming from.

So I know our generation’s tendency is to multitask and do 15 things at once, and as a result we rarely give our full attention to every conversation that  comes our way. We’ll ignore many conversations simply because we’re too “busy.” But I encourage you to choose to engage that person instead — because you’ll never know how a single conversation can change you.

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  1. Nisha,
    I think you are spot on with how important one conversation can be. I am an American, but grew up overseas, and I when I am in China or some other Chinese speaking country people are always so genuinely happy and surprised that I speak Chinese as a Caucasian. But here in the US you are expected to speak english and nobody would ever compliment someone who is just learning how to speak english on how good their english is or how fast they were able to learn it…no they are expected to speak it and nobody has the patience to talk to someone who is slow or struggling to find the right words. It’s sad, but a true fact about American culture. I like how you have written this and explored the topic on a deeper level and shown just how important one conversation can be.

    -Brian Linton

  2. @Brian: Thanks! It is true in other countries they love it when you can speak their language, but here we take it for granted that everyone can and should, in our minds, speak English.

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