The Arrow

There are no answers; only choices.


Posted by thearrow on February 23, 2008

That’s how most Americans* I know talk. No unnecessary details are included in the conversation, which moves swiftly to the next topic and many times is over before I know it :). This was another big adjustment I had to make, coming from the gregarious Romanian culture, where many times people talk just for the sake of talking. We like to dissect stuff in minute details; I think for us this chattiness is a form of bonding. What I said earlier about complaining — that we like to hash things out until we exorcise them — is actually true about everything we discuss.

Well, not here. There have been countless times when I still had things to say but it was very clear that the other person had moved on to doing something else and I was kind of left in midair. That’s guaranteed to make you feel stupid. You can imagine the kind of analysis that ensued in my mind when I saw that every time (for a long time) I felt I barely said a few words and it was over before I could make a point. Heck, before I even knew what my point was :). Several hundred such incidents later, I came to the conclusion that we like to dwell on things and that’s just not the case with Americans. And yes, I know there are exceptions and that all this sounds like a sweeping generalization. I’m just talking about something that has happened to me over and over again, so there must be some truth to it, even if it doesn’t apply to everyone.

I came to think that this parsimony in using words is closely connected to the restraint in expressing emotions. I had to change the way I talked or risked feeling out-of-place all the time. But it sure wasn’t easy and that’s because using fewer words made me feel like an emotional amputee. I HAD to use more words and I HAD to say the same thing in a million different ways. Every nuance would shed some light on it, right? 🙂

But in time I did change. It was actually a two-fold revolution for me since I was way too wordy in writing, too, and that’s not good writing in English. Speaking of which, when I learned what good writing was all about, I started to wonder what that is in Romanian. While there’s a ton of books on writing in English for any purpose you can imagine, I can’t think of one in Romanian. From my observations, we like to be very elliptical; a lot is left unsaid, for the clever reader to infer. In English, the fewer words you use, the better, but you can’t half-bake ideas. You have to be very clear.

So I discovered that learning how to write improved my thinking process. It forced me to think things through and not start with a long preamble whenever I opened my mouth. In other words, I had to do my homework, distill my ideas, and then make the main point or ask the damn question 🙂

And now I feel like a hybrid. I like my new and improved thinking, but I still feel I use too many words for my American friends sometimes and I wonder if maybe I’m not wordy enough for my Romanian friends.


* I actually think the American behaviors I’m describing are rather Anglo-Saxon, just like gregariousness is a Latin trait. Fellow bloggers in Canada and the U.K. say things are similar there, to a certain extent. It would be interesting to hear about Germany (Gloria?), the Netherlands (Mihaela?), the Scandinavian countries, and Australia (Oblia?).


25 Responses to “Briefly”

  1. k. said

    you’ve made good points here. the thing is i try not to bother about spoken/written language so much. i’ve been obsessively thinking about becoming an engineer or something that doesn’t have to do with words… pentru mine, care mi-am ‘castigat painea’ opt ani din cuvinte si propozitii, e o pierdere colosala ce traiesc acuma, mi-am dat seama.

    insa pentru moment iti semnalez un concert care cred ca ti-ar placea,
    poti sa asculti, si e si lista de concerte.

  2. thearrow said

    Yes, it’s a lot harder if you have to rely on words to make a living. Both in terms of not being able to use words the way we did back home and in terms of the steep learning curve in acquiring the new way to use them. It’s an entirely different paradigm. Nothing we knew from back home applies here. And I do believe that language modifies behavior. Having to use words in such an economical way makes you a lot more restrained in the way you present yourself, too. And, because this is not just about language, it’s even harder to adjust to it. I think it’s a worthwhile experience, but it’s inevitably coupled with a sense of loss of identity.

  3. thearrow said

    A, si mersi ca mi-ai zis de concert! Vai, urmatorul e in DC vinerea asta. Hm… daca mai gasesc bilet de 20 de lei ma duc :).

  4. thearrow said

    It’s sold out. Oh well 😦

  5. k. said

    nu te lasa intimidata de sold out, eu m-am dus si mai erau bilete 🙂

  6. v said

    i don’t get it. are you talking about books on creative writing, or what?

  7. thearrow said

    No, books on any kind of writing you can imagine, both fiction and non-fiction (news, essay, research papers). They showed on TV the other day a book called “How to Write a Book on Writing.” 🙂 No kidding!

  8. v said

    there are simple rules to follow when it comes to news or research… things.
    but essays? c’mon, they’re not even in the same league! parsimony, straight saying, economy of words (and ideas!) – when it comes to essays… pffff! that’s how they invented the serial best-sellers writer.
    i might be wrong, but please, someone prove me that.

  9. L said

    To V

    The Arrow hit the bull’s eye again. Yep, concision is the rule of the game. (The following turned out much longer than I intended!)

    I don’t want to prove you wrong, I’m just joining the conversation. For me, any type of writing has a “formula” or structure and its rules need to be taught and learned (especially when you want to make a point).

    To clarify, I’m talking about academic essays (simply put, assignments and term papers). There are at least three types, each with a different purpose: narrative (literary), expository, and descriptive. The rules depend on the type of essay you want to write. The basic rule is that any essay needs to have a beginning, a body, and an ending, with their respective elements. If you ever asked yourself “what was this about?” at the end of a 5-page paper, you’d see how sorely you wish someone had spelled those rules out. Also, in the American education system nobody assumes that you’ve learned these rules at home or with private tutors (sounds familiar?) and they simply teach you the basics (learning is optional, however 🙂 ). Expository writing (e.g., presenting a topic or comparing and contrasting ideas, works, etc.) is mandatory for all first-year college students. Hence, there are textbooks and books for it (a huge business here).

    But I don’t want to take over The Arrow’s blog. I will end with just saying that I find refreshing and amusing that despite a huge repository of resources on writing in the US, the classic reference book is The Elements of Style by W. Strunk, Jr. (, which is a wonderful, little book (o brosurica!) of “essentials”.

  10. v said

    @l: i couldn’t agree more! i was only talking about extending the rules of straightforwardness to the class of creative writings. the mistake is mine – i got inflammated because of a particular issue that interests me, but forgot to mention which one’s that. 😀
    on the other hand, the fact you mentioned ‘the elements of style’ serves my inflammation well. you simply can’t teach a writer wannabe that
    …’cititorul se află de cele mai multe ori în mare dificultate, o persoană care se zbate într-o mlaştină, şi că e de datoria oricui încearcă să scrie […] să sece numaidecât acea mlaştină şi să-l aducă pe om înapoi pe teren ferm sau măcar să-i arunce o frânghie’…
    imho, only bad literature can come out of this way of thinking your prose.

  11. thearrow said

    V., I think I should’ve left fiction out of my earlier response. What I wrote refers only to non-fiction, journalistic, and business writing, really. That said, there are books for creative writing, too; any kind of writing you can possibly imagine. But with so many things competing for people’s attention, you cannot afford to be unclear. Where’s that quote from? I’d say that the writer shouldn’t put the reader through the ordeal that guy’s describing in the first place :). Don’t you think?

    L., thanks for bringing up The Elements of Style. I added the style books I’m using to my writing resources, although I had to link to amazon :). At least more people will hear about them. One important note is that “style” here refers to grammar and punctuation, not to the finer points of writing, which is what it means in Romanian :). Very confusing!

  12. v said

    @thearrow: “One important note is that “style” here refers to grammar and punctuation, not to the finer points of writing, which is what it means in Romanian :). Very confusing!”
    – yes, but it’s the english speaking writing guru (stephen king, for instance, in ‘on writing’) who use ‘the elements of style’ to channel the ‘finer points of writing’. confusing becomes a small word…

  13. thearrow said

    I guess by “finer points of writing” I meant differences in the choice of words rather than the proper use of the semicolon :). Not sure I make sense. I definitely have to read “On Writing.” You’ve stirred my curiosity.

  14. k said

    pararea mea despre stilul concis este ca exista pericolul, pe care in unele zone il vedem deja, sa devina prea concis. sa nu mai putem citi un text daca nu are in titlu un ‘3 pasi spre…’ sau ‘cum sa inveti nu stiu ce in 7 etape’. stii la ce ma refer, nu?

  15. v said

    @thearrow: “I guess by “finer points of writing” I meant differences in the choice of words rather than the proper use of the semicolon”
    – precisely my point, glad to see we were on the same page. stephen king is using ‘the elements of style’ (strunk) to teach the young writers ‘style’ in that ‘romanian’ meaning of it.
    yes, go read ‘on writing’, it’s a fine work, especially in its autobiographic part.

  16. v said

    @k: that’s my fear too…

  17. thearrow said

    V., indeed, the last section of Strunk does talk about the choice of words. I think the meaning of “style” as “grammar and punctuation” stuck to my mind as the main one.

    I wish I had more time to read King; or, rather, a different state of mind. I’ll definitely do it as soon as I can. I’ve been dreaming of setting time aside to study all these style guides but I can’t get my act together for that right now :(.

  18. thearrow said

    K., I know what you mean but I think I got used to it :). And I don’t think it happens everywhere. In newspapers, for instance, headlines are punchy and enticing at the same time. They don’t always state things in a very obvious way and I like that. But, if your example refers only to self-help books, I think those cannot afford to be less clear because no one would even pick them up. Meanwhile, a little clarity in what’s written in Romanian would be very welcome 😀

  19. v said

    (usually, what’s written in romanian lacks the romanian language itself 😀 )

  20. thearrow said

    HAHAHA! How true :). Romanian seems to be like a second language for many Romanians. We’re nowhere close to the danger of being too concise there.

    K., I now realize that I was taking your example too literally. Sorry; I always fall in that trap :).

  21. […] communication, cultural differences, cultural meanings, Romanians, speech trackback The Arrow started it on her own blog. Smartly so, too, I’d say. For here we are, Romanians migrating from their […]

  22. oblia said

    done. 🙂

  23. mihahela said

    my reply comes a bit late but it’s never too late, heee? well, I also had to do my homework when I arrived here, holland, to stay, it also took me months (or years?), I cannot even remember anymore, until I gave up my “foreword” when addressing somebody on a specific topic, like a diner conversation or such… I noticed from the very beginning that after 10-20 seconds they were not listening to me anymore and I got angry… sooo angry! I blamed the whole dutch nation, johan van oldenbarneveldt and willem van oranje, I blamed my neighbors and the woman in the bakery (well, I hate this woman and I think she hates me too and I think we would profoundly dislike each other in any other given conditions)… now, after years of cutting deep into the “dutch feeling of being”, I know what it is:
    – the rush to speak caused by the knowledge that “they” don’t listen, “they” lack attention and interest, so let me be brief and say everything in short though details would really make it clear and substantial;
    – the fear of being ridiculous (they all act the same, if I do otherwise they don’t like me anymore);
    – the illusion that by being brief one still COMMUNICATES, that he/she manages to transfer a specific amount of information, supposedly sufficient to give one the feeling of being “social”.
    it still bothers me… back in cluj, I discover every time that my foreword is paid attention to… so: long live the preamble!

  24. thearrow said

    So it’s just like here… Wow. Very interesting. I think this is partly explained by the modern rush to do as much as you can, so people don’t have time for this kind of stuff. But I also think that people don’t want to get out of their comfort zone to find out more. So, if they don’t hear the main idea in the first 20 seconds, bye-bye. That said, I have co-workers who take a long time to explain something and others do pay attention to them even though I lose my interest in those first 20 seconds. But they definitely don’t have the same patience with ME and I still haven’t figured out exactly why. I have a pet theory for this, though. I think we, Romanians, follow different logical patterns when putting ideas into words than a Dutch or an American would. Or than a Chinese, for that matter. I can almost bet that a very detailed functional MRI would show that a Romanian’s brain lits up in a slightly different way than the brain of a Germanic-language native speaker when explaining the same thing. I don’t know if fMRIs go in such detail, but they should :). So maybe they’re not as patient with me because they can’t follow my pattern of thinking.

    And then there’s our emotional need for those long preambles. Big cultural difference and one of the hardest to adjust to for us. I wonder if people in Bucharest still listen to them, knowing how frantic life is there now. Folks in Cluj might still feel tomorrow is another day, but it doesn’t seem that way in Bucharest.

    Thanks for responding :). I hope you won’t stop writing on your blog, ok? I check it every day, even if I don’t always comment.

  25. […] Tags: Australia, cross-cultural communication, cultural differences, Romanian expats trackback The Arrow started it on her own blog. Smartly so, too, I’d say. For here we are, Romanians migrating from […]

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