Friday, May 25, 2012

A Vocal Chameleon

I was feeling a bit reflective yesterday, and I started thinking about my social habits.  This was triggered by a neighbor commenting to me that I don't have much of a Southern accent.  He was probably the 4th or 5th person to note this in the last week.  Last week, when I told one woman I was from Georgia, she said, "Yes, but where have you been living?  You've obviously been away because you don't sound like you're from Georgia."  The fact is, they're right - I don't have a Southern accent...up here.  Put me in my Mom's kitchen, or better yet, a seedy bar anywhere in Georgia, and I'll sound just like the Southern girl that I am.  The thing is, I've noticed over the last few years that I unconsciously tend to talk like the people around me.  I shape my voice to sound like theirs.  I don't necessarily sound like a native, but people certainly aren't asking me where I'm from all the time because I sound foreign to them.  This happens to me in other countries and other languages sometimes as well.  I also pick up people's speech habits and mannerisms.  I do this automatically, not because it seems like a good idea, but because I have a personality that wants to fit in, to blend in, and to make friends.

In a larger context, I've observed that I do this with all kinds of things.  When I go to a new place or meet a new group of people, I automatically observe their habits and their attitudes about the world, and I emulate them.  It's easy for me to meet people.  It's easy for me to make friends.  I enjoy moving and getting to know new places.  And part of this is probably because I have this tendency.  When I go to a new place, I get right out of my house, knocking on the neighbors' doors, scouting out the places I like - thrift stores, libraries, bars, coffee shops - and introducing myself to people all over town.  I listen to what they say, listening for clues to their general worldview as well as the words they tell me.  I'm not afraid to put myself out there, and then I automatically fit myself right into whatever group culture already exists.  I take that culture, and I reflect it right back.  In a way, this can be a blessing.  People are generally nice to me, and I tend to find it easy to make friends and feel welcome in a new place.  This tendency, however, can also be a challenge.  I have to pay attention to myself to make sure I don't get carried away.  I have to remind myself of who I am, of my deeper goals and values, to keep from getting off track. 

"Getting off track" - that's one way to characterize the 10 years of my life between 17 and 27, when I tried very hard, and mostly unconsciously, to fit myself into the group known as our dominant Western culture.  I acted like the stereotype of what is desirable in that culture.  I said the right things, got the right grades, got the right job, house, boyfriend, whatever...but it wasn't me.  And I had no idea.  I was unfulfilled and confused, but I didn't know why.  When I finally realized that I was living a life I didn't want, and that I could just leave and go live a different sort of life, it was an epiphany.  And after I left, when I looked back and realized that I had been trying to "fit in" and that I had been living a rather superficial sort of life (for me), I was mortified.  I felt like a fraud.  I would have told you that I highly valued authenticity and honesty, but it seemed that I had not been modeling those values.  I had valued conformity over authenticity, albeit unconsciously.  This realization shocked me and embarrassed me, and it took me a while to fully accept.  When I did accept it, my first reaction was to swing the other way.  I no longer wanted to talk to people who didn't share my values!  I had little patience for the dominant culture and would cringe in pain anytime anyone mentioned a TV show they watched, expensive clothing they wanted to buy, or anything else that I deemed irrelevant to life.  I would go home and agonize about the state of the world.  Whereas before, I would let demeaning or derogatory comments (about groups or classes of people or about myself) roll off my back as I smiled and nodded, now I either confronted people, or more often, left - immediately.  I had grown up with more tolerance than was helpful, and now I had none.  I struggled to find people I could truly connect with, and since I'm a pretty social person, this isolation was maddening.  I sequestered myself at home, reading and brooding about how our society was going to shit.

Fortunately, I eventually started to find some balance in my life.  I met a great community of people (you beautiful Coyotes) who DID share my values, who I could connect with on a deeper level.  Having this need met softened my harsh judgement and low tolerance for people who are different than me, and for myself.  I started to open back up again, to trust people and to try to connect with them even if they were different than me.  I accepted the fact that I am a beautiful, flawed, sometimes-contradictory-but-trying-hard human, just like everyone else.

So now, I seek balance.  I don't always make my choices about conforming or not consciously - I still have automatic habits.  But now I try to pay attention, notice my habits, and keep my general direction in mind always.  I sometimes compromise by not bringing up my true feelings for the sake of peacekeeping in social situations, but I don't let it get out of hand.  I occasionally create conflict where there needn't be any.  I'm like a little pendulum, oscillating around that point of balance, but no longer wildly swinging from end to end.  If something truly offends me, I try to find the courage to address it in a non-violent way, a way that models vulnerability so that people can hear my message.  And fortunately, since I've started farming and doing nature connection work, these situations are few and far between.  Now as I start to fit myself into the new groups, towns, and families that I meet, I look around and notice what I'm doing, and then I smile inside, because it's me - really me - that's fitting in.  Well, besides that whole accent problem!  I just don't know how to make myself not do that.

I hope that as I move forward in my life, I will find this adaptability to be an asset for connecting with people, especially people who are different than me.  I hope that I can find a way to use these habits, not in a manipulative way, but in a way that softens, smooths, and helps people, including me, to really see one another, even in their differences.  And I hope that I will remember to stay true to my values and that my judgement will be true, so that I can stand firm on the things that are really important and bend when I need to bend.  Thanks for reading my ramble.  As usual, I intend no judgement on others' lifestyle choices (nor my own), these are just some thoughts and observations.  I'd love to hear your thoughts.



BZM said...

I'm so glad to catch up with some of your activities and wanderings! It sounds as though you are very happy and contented there. We love you. BZ and Bill

Evan said...

I've noticed this accent thing so much! When my family would visit my grandparents, my parents would always add a noticeable drawl to their normal way of speaking even though I don't think they ever thought about it. When I lived in Japan I spoke very clearly, enunciating every syllable because I was so rarely speaking to native english speakers. When I moved to the mountains, I noticed myself getting a lot more mumbly -- though maybe that's just because I spent a lot of time mostly talking to myself! haha! I could name so many more examples of this mimicry I see occur in my life -- or listen how in a group of people having entirely separate conversations will often pick up on what other folks are talking about and their conversation will shift from this unconcious cross-pollination.

I certainly did that cross-my-arms and brood thing for awhile... like years... it's definitely got some severe limits! LIke you, I've softened from having good relationships with folks I can connect with, and from just realizing that my ideas about things are oftentimes pretty irrelevant to the actual day-to-day of a relationship. I'm finding as I slowly meet my neighbors that even though our "values" might on some level be different, the value we place on our being neighbors is much more important than abstractions.

All this to say that I hear what you're saying, and I resonate with it.

I've been peeking in on your blog as you've posted and I'm glad to see that you're well into settling in there.

spring-blessings, well-wishes, rain-songs, medicine-fogs...
Evan W

Torey Jones said...

I must say I too do the accent mix'n match. I think I do it because my mother always has.She grew up in a tourist town and got great at mimicking different accents. She also has a big heart and is always open to helping people. I grew up in Tennessee and for most of my childhood my mother spoke very clear and proper English. When we moved to the deep country later on in my childhood, she immediately switched to a southern drawl. For the longest time it really annoyed me. I felt like she was lying to people. But then I started to notice that people were much more open to her when she sounded like them, and she was able to connect with them on a much more intimate level.
As I grew, I began to love the southern sound and adapt it into my normal speech.
I think its a beautiful thing to change your accent. Its like singing a song to someone foreign in their native expression of warmth and connection.
I enjoyed reading what is in your heart! I've always been a chameleon myself, and I understand the strange feelings of contradiction it can bring. I find it easier to accept myself fully, as one small human who holds a multitude of being, when I see all of the little pieces that make me up in other people. I look at the reflections I see and I feel much less alone. Thank you for your beautiful words!
I really enjoyed them.
Love and Rockets dear friend,

Aura... said...

Thanks, guys :) It's good to know someone is reading, and I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts and stories. Thanks for sharing, miss you all!

Deana said...

I love reading your thoughts!

Miss you!