Culture/Speaking/Listening – Anticipation of the Situation

Do you have trouble understanding people when talking to them? Do you get frustrated because you can’t understand what someone is saying to you or asking you? This blog post will attempt to address that frustration and will discuss the importance of anticipating questions and responses in any given situation.

Suppose you are in a foreign country and you decide to go to a restaurant – particularly a fast food restaurant (Yes, they exist everywhere, unfortunately).

You arrive at the restaurant and you are about to walk in. It is at this point that you should be anticipating the experience in many ways. Here is a list of the things you should be anticipating:

  • The Environment
  • The Cultural Circumstance
  • The Conversation
  • Specifics and Non-Negotiables
  • Wild Cards

The Environment

Better prepare yourself for the environment by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Does the restaurant look like a popular restaurant? If so, do you think it will be busy? Look inside: is it busy?
  • Does the restaurant look like it’s a sit-down restaurant, or a fast-food restaurant?
  • Does it look like it is a place for casual dining or formal dining?

The Cultural Circumstance

Different cultures have different expectations as to how everyday situations should be handled. For example, in Germany you generally set money on the counter instead of handing it to somebody. However, in Spanish-speaking countries, it is generally considered rude to place money on the counter and is expected to be handed to somebody (I’ve learned both uncomfortably). Do you know how long it usually takes someone to order? How long it usually takes to receive your order without cause for concern? It might be wise to walk in and observe a little bit if you are uncomfortable or unsure.

Some cultures tend to be more relaxed/take your time (Hispanic cultures) and others are more hurried/get out of my way (American culture). What has your past experience or your studies taught you about these expectations?

The Conversation

You walk in and figure out what you want to order. You then approach the cash register. The cashier rambles something off and you have no idea what he or she just said. Now wait a moment: did you anticipate what he or she was going to say? What do you think he/she said?

A reasonable assumption would be any of the following: “can I take your order,” “how can I help you,” “[formal greeting]”, “what would you like,” or “what do you want?” or some variation of any of those. When you anticipate the scenario and the conversation about to happen, you narrow the parameters of discussion and possibilities. This makes it easier to expect what to hear and therefore, easier and more likely to comprehend.

You must anticipate the conversation before it even happens and you must anticipate what you will say in response. Repeat this process back and forth. You will find yourself having an easier time communicating.

Specifics and Non-Negotiables

Before going into that restaurant, make sure you know how to communicate any specific needs or non-negotiables. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • What specific needs do you have? Are you disabled in any way?
  • What specific questions will you need to ask?
  • Do you absolutely hate onions? Do you have a peanut allergy? How will you communicate these needs effectively?

Wild Cards

Suppose you say hello to a guy and he starts talking to you like you’re about to have a 30 minute conversation (and you have a train to catch in 10). Suppose something bad happens. Suppose a fire breaks out. Suppose the cashier starts rambling at you in a very quick, angry tongue and you don’t understand why. Although instances like this are quite rare, it is good to have a backup plan and be prepared by having your survival phrases ready to pull out of your linguistic holster at any given moment. Examples of survival vocabulary:

  • I don’t understand.
  • Sorry.
  • Please repeat.
  • Please.
  • Thank you.
  • Help.
  • Emergency!

Speaking – Automatic Phrases

One great way to build proficiency (that is, useful functioning with a language) is to focus and cue in on a few, what I like to call: ‘automatic phrases.’ This is not a novel or new idea. This is just my own twist and definition to it.

What are automatic phrases?

By my definition, automatic phrases are at least three (ideally four) things:

  1. A group of words that are learned together, remembered together, and said together.
    • Don’t isolate the words – don’t need to know meaning of individual word.
  2. Phrases or expressions that are memorized to the point of automaticity.
    • This phrase is something that is engraved in your language arsenal.
    • This phrase, expression, or question is something that should spill right out of your mouth without thought.
  3. Serves communicative purpose – express need, desire, opinion, emotion, clarification. Don’t memorize useless phrases.
    • Can owls turn their head 360 degrees?
    • What is the distance of the sun from Earth?
    • Do you build snowmen in the winter?
  4. Ideally, these phrases are questions or expressions that can be applied in various situations – but not necessarily.

Can I get an example, please?

For example, in Spanish there is the question “a qué hora?” It means “at what time?” This is a group of words that are learned together, remembered together, and said together.  In my Spanish 2 class, this question is memorized to the point of automaticity – they shouldn’t have to think about this question. This phrase should be locked away in their language arsenal and easily accessible in any situation without thought. This question is useful in all kinds of different situations: What time does it start? What time does it end? What time are we meeting? What time is it?

I know them in all of my languages: At what time? A qué hora? Um wieviel Uhr? Mihin aikaan?

What are some other good ones?

Examples of good automatic phrases:

  • Who, What, Where, When, Why, How
  • Do you need?
  • I need
  • What do you want?
  • I want
  • Do you have?
  • I have
  • At what time?
  • I don’t understand
  • Repeat, please
  • What do you like?
  • I like…
  • Where is…