The Flinch [EXPERIMENT] – The talk

I read the words.

“Perform this experiment whether you like it or not. Agree now, before reading the next sentence.”

In my head, I agreed.

The next sentence said, “You are going to speak to the next stranger you come across.”

Ah, I don’t really have to do this one, I thought. I mean, it’s clearly geared toward people living in a country where everyone speaks their language. This doesn’t apply to me.

In a normal situation, I’d be glad to perform this one. I don’t mind talking to random strangers, even those just walking down the street or sitting next to me in the library. It’s like God knew that wouldn’t be much of a challenge for me, so he set it up so I’d be in Korea when I read this.

As I mentioned a while back, I gave up learning Korean. I still try to pick up words and phrases here and there, but I’ve formally decided it’s not a priority. That decision has created more than a few uncomfortable situations. Telling people I’m not even trying to learn their language living here isn’t the coolest thing in the world to say when you first meet someone.

But whatever. I made the decision to pursue other things, so I live with it. I still like the trade I made, just not in some specific situations.

This Flinch experiment turned into one of those situations.

All the questions came flying at me. I don’t know how to start a conversation, so what am I supposed to say? The next person I meet might be going somewhere in a hurry, so what can I say to them? I don’t know who the next stranger will be, so how can I prepare for a conversation in Korean?

Most of my Korean conversations start with me having something specific to say or ask. Like I go to the bank and need them to do something for me. In those cases, I can just cram some Korean words and phrases, and that usually works well enough.

In other cases, I know enough to introduce myself and make it clear that I don’t speak Korean. I don’t do that second part on purpose (usually), but Koreans generally get the idea after a few short exchanges.

In this case, though, I had no specific reason to talk, yet I would be initiating the conversation with them. It’s like, “Hi, I need to talk to you, but I don’t really have any reason to.”

That scared me.

I kept trying to come up with ways to get out of it. Eventually, though, I realized I just needed to get out of the house, talk to someone, and get it over with. That, and it was almost time to go to work – I didn’t have a lot of choices: either keep up the experiment or quit.

So I got ready and walked off to work. Not 20 seconds out of my place, I spotted a group of guys heading toward me.

Okay, that’s them, I thought. Now what am I going to say?

I looked around. The road paralleled the above-ground subway tracks. I might be able to start with that.

As they approached, I walked up to the middle guy and pointed to the tracks. Mustering a phrase I’d learned within a few weeks of landing here, I asked him where the subway station was.

“Walk straight. Wangsimni.” He pointed to the tower I know so well.

I’m pretty sure his English is better than mine, I thought.

“And Haengdang Station,” I said in English, “Where is that?”

He said it was line 5, one stop away. I nodding, trying to think of something further to say. Nothing else coming to mind, I thanked him and continued on my way. I guess that counts as “talking to the next person I meet.”

Looking back, I realize this wasn’t that big a deal, or shouldn’t have been. I could do it again right now without much of a problem. Something about doing it for the first time on the spot seemed much more difficult.

The same applies for a lot other situations as well. After trying them once, most things are rarely as hard the second time. The trick is getting past the first time. I think that’s part of what this experiment is all about, training to get past the initial resistance.

Four challenges down, one more to go.