6. Deciphering the Unspoken
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74«.«.« 6 ».».» Deciphering the Unspoken What Silence Might Mean As the fifth-grade teacher asked her class the question she had told them to prepare for, her eyes fell on the boy in the back row. His name was Mariano, she knew, and he had come from one of those islands in Micronesia. She was getting more and more of those island students in her class each year—shy kids who dressed a little differently from everyone else and kept pretty much to themselves. Now and then they could be gently coaxed out of their shells, but they would retreat into their own world again soon afterward. She wanted to help them, but their parents never seemed to attend PTA meetings or come to consult with the teachers on the progress of their children. If only they came to seek assistance, she was sure that she and the other teachers could work with them to ensure that their children made up some of the ground they had to cover to catch up with everyone else in the class. Her eyes scanned the class before they rested on Mariano in the back row. He seemed quite bright even though he never volunteered an answer in the class. Sometimes hands would go up all over the room, but never Mariano’s. Well, here was a chance to get the boy back in the game, to build up his confidence in himself and let others see what he could do. “Mariano,” she asked, “what is the planet closest to the sun?” At the mention of his name, the boy dropped his eyes. The teacher waited for a while, but there was no response. When she repeated the question, Mariano simply shook his head from side Deciphering the Unspoken 75 to side. Did that mean that he didn’t know, the teacher wondered, or whether he just didn’t want to answer the question? These island children are so strange, she thought. Communication across cultures involves weighing the meaning of words in their context, but it also means interpreting silences and the pauses in speech. Sometimes the gaps in speech, joined with facial expressions and bodily gestures, speak more eloquently than words— at least for one who can interpret what is being communicated. Mariano’s silence may be partly due to personal shyness and the strangeness of his new situation at the school, but there are cultural factors that could also help explain his reticence. Most young Micronesians have already learned that it is risky to call attention to oneself, even by volunteering to answer a question in class. If Mariano had given the wrong answer, he would have exposed himself to ridicule from his teacher and his classmates. Yet, if he had the correct answer, he might have been criticized for attempting to stand out. Either way he would have been taking a risk. The safer course, as all young islanders learn, is to maintain a stony silence. For a person to make a blatant attempt to get ahead individually is to invite opprobrium in Micronesia. From the time they are toddlers , children are told that it is the tallest tree that is in danger of being struck by lightning. The crab that struggles farthest up the side of the pot to free itself from the hot water will be pulled down by all the rest. For an individual to stand out from the rest is a challenge to the “society first” order of values that is expected to be shared by all in the community. Bragging or overt self-aggrandizement is always in bad taste in the islands. Any individual is expected to let his deeds speak for themselves . Even when he is praised for what he has done, he is expected to dismiss the achievements as too ordinary to warrant such praise. A verbal pat on the head by a well-intentioned teacher can cause problems for a student. Peace Corps volunteers teaching in Chuuk some years ago used to complain that they didn’t know how to react appropriately when a student distinguished himself or herself in class. Many of them had already gone through the painful experience of praising a student publicly in class only to find that their star student soon afterward began to plummet in class performance. They used to joke 76 Chapter 6 among themselves that their adulation was the best way to ruin the education of a fine student. What might have served as positive...