I hate uncomfortable silences.
Uma Thurman said it best in "Pulp Fiction" when she and John Travolta's iconic Vincent Vega shared one of the longest uncomfortable silences in cinema history. They sat in a cheesy diner with a fabricated 1920s mood and ran out of equally cheesy and disingenuous small talk.
"Don't you hate that?" she uttered simply.
Of course we do.
Normally when we encounter an uncomfortable silence, such as the one Tarantino masterfully orchestrated on the silver screen, we usually give a courteous goodbye and walk away. The more charismatic among us find something to fill the conversation with, or as Uma so eloquently put, "...yak about bull----."
However, this weekend I ran into a situation where I could no longer walk away or fill the void with inane small talk. All the normal uncomfortable silence conventions were there: people I had never met before, a dimly lit bar room, a difference in age and the social impediment of being entirely too sober. But the two things I use to remove myself from, or at least to alleviate, such situations were both sorely absent: a way to gracefully leave and the English language.
One of my friends had invited me to go to Cool Beans on Friday night, which sounds like a typical Knoxville Friday night. However, she had invited me to go and practice Spanish with members of the Spanish department who reserved a few tables for students to come in and practice their Spanish in a setting with slightly more social lubricant than your typical HSS classroom.
I was thrilled to finally be testing all I had learned during the four years I have been studying Spanish. But, as soon as my hand met the professor's and we exchanged "mucho gusto's," all four years of Spanish flew out of my head faster than a Kiffin private jet out of Knoxville.
Everything I knew and was completely confident of my ability in immediately left me. Conjugation, formality, correct use of tenses, vocabulary, you name it – I messed it up. I was mortified. I felt like I had gone from an eager student to an affront to the language itself all in the matter of a handshake.
Obviously red and embarrassed, I began to clam up and leave myself out of most of the discussions for a while. Noticing my diffidence, one of the professors began making an effort to bring me back in. I slowly, but surely, piped back up and began finding my confidence and four years of classes again, and I enjoyed myself more than I could have possibly imagined.
While the professor was giving me my training wheels to get back into the conversation, I remembered there is a reason I am still studying Spanish, and there is a reason all of these faculty members took time out of their busy schedules to listen to barely coherent students fumble their way through any conversation more complex than "Cómo se llama?"
Those faculty members love Spanish. I do too, even if I am still terrible at it.
I love listening to the flow and beauty of it. How the vowels roll right off the tongue and everything has a nearly musical quality, unlike our guttural Germanic prattling. I love immersing myself in new viewpoints and new cultures and even finding how similar they are to our American ones (do you think Southern English is the only regional accent that gets made fun of?). I love the food, the music and the history.
Most importantly, I love Spanish enough to get over feeling awkward speaking it. I love it enough to not feel silly when I forget to accentuate my words correctly and display exactly how much of a gringo I am. And, I love it enough to be able to drive through uncomfortable silences, even without my usual crutch of the English language.
Chase Parker is a junior in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology. He can be reached at email@example.com.