One night at Pueblo Ingles, a one-week program I volunteered at in Spain, we played the game of Taboo. The object of the game is to describe a word without the use of any of the “taboo” words that are associated with it. It is difficult. The Spaniards here are learning English, so that makes it even more difficult for them. It was a fun diversion, and of course when fueled by alcohol it is even more entertaining.
But the next day I began thinking about subjects that are taboo in conversation, as a large part of this program involved one-to-one chats with the English learners. The theory is that they will learn to speak by listening and speaking in this natural way, in regular conversation, more quickly than they would learn in a grammar class, for example.
We (the Anglos – English speakers who hailed from the US, Canada, England, Wales, and New Zealand) had been warned to be culturally sensitive and told that it might be wise to avoid subjects such as religion and politics, and in particular the Spanish Civil War (?) – yeah, like I know a whole lot about that! – but otherwise, to explore different topics of conversation so that people were not always talking about the obvious: “Where are you from? What do you do for a living? Are you married? Do you have children?” etc.
Throwing a mix of people together in an intimate situation creates an odd, family-like feeling. It is much like being on a movie set; suddenly you have a new set of friends and family — some you like, some you don’t, someone you might be attracted to, someone you develop a brother or sister-like relationship with— any combination of fake familial bonds form quickly.
I found this diversity happened, too, in the one-to-one conversations we had. Some people dived right into talking about relationships and marriage and love. Others stuck to the more neutral subjects of their work and places they had travelled. And I wondered: are these the conversations people would be having if left to their own devices and not put into the situation of practicing a language? In Spanish, I don’t have all the words to discuss intimate things, but I think I would certainly try. Yes, I would “go there.” I am the person you will find in the corner of the room at a cocktail party, listening intently as someone laments their gone-wrong kid or their straying husband. And I have been in the corner with both men and women, it’s not just us chicks letting our hair down!
My very first one-to-one conversation was about love and long-distance relationships. This was with a woman, which you might have guessed. But another, the next day, was a conversation with a man which resulted in an interesting discussion of the difference between the male versus the female emotional investment in “hooking up”.
It is wise to try to enjoy all conversational styles when volunteering in a setting like this. Whether or not a subject is Taboo depends on the people involved in the conversation. Are you guarded or not? (well, are ya, Punk?)
Shooting from the hip like Clint!