The Perfect Ambiguity
I urge that we not be discouraged to continue the conversation.
I met a sweet, outgoing, and stylish Chinese classmate around my age, Yi at the summer improv course at the university. To be more specific, Carnegie Mellon University, where the best School of Computer Science and School of Drama coexists. Shortly after we got to know each other, she invited me to grab dinner with her husband at a Turkish place near campus.
That night, we talked about our experiences in the US as non-native speakers of English. The couple shared their concerns about their lack of mastery of the English language, especially in getting their points across in group conversations.
I also expressed my appreciation to Yi, mostly on how brave I thought she was in the improv class we took together, where she absolutely put herself out there, jumping into actives and just, having fun with us the whole time.
Her husband, Lao Yang, a reserved while witty one, decided to share with me something they odd encountered in Boston a few weeks ago, where he claimed that “my wife thought my response to the English native speaker was a little rude.”
“Tell me tell me tell me.” I urged.
“Okay, so we were hanging out near the Harvard campus,” Lao Yang said. “My wife had this CMU sweatshirt on. A middle-aged Caucasian man approached us, asking us if we went to CMU. I said yes.
“The guy asked, ‘At the School of Computer Science?’
“I said yes again.
“He was really excited, saying all the best things about how great CMU was in the field of Computer Science.
“I felt really flattered.
“Then, out of nowhere, he pointed to the young college girl next to him and went like: ‘She goes to Harvard, at the CS program too, which is better.’
“I stumbled. ‘Maybe.’ That was all I was able to respond.
“It was so odd. Why would he compliment CMU so highly and then claimed that Harvard was better?
“And the man never responded to my ‘maybe.’” Lao Yang paused.
“Isn’t my husband rude?” Yi jumped in, “He should probably try harder to at least agree with that guy…”
“WAIT. Didn’t he ask you a question?” I interrupted them abruptly.
There was a pause.
“What?” Lao Yang was super curious.
I repeated: “The guy was trying to be funny by asking you a question, no? Which is better, CMU or Harvard, in Computer Science?”
“Oh, my. That makes so much more sense!” They said.
There, a moment of revelation, where the three of us laughed so hard and gladly realized that the man wasn’t just an antisocial narcissist.
“Um, I am pretty sure he wasn’t asking a question. He didn’t raise his pitch at the end of the sentence,” Yi followed up with this piece of evidence.
“Only the yes/no questions will end in a rising tone. The which/what/how questions won’t,” I responded and gave a few examples.
Yi continued, “Right after that odd conversation with the guy, I told my husband that we could’ve said something nicer like ‘Oh although Harvard is better in its arts sectors, CMU is quite strong in Computer Science.’”
“Don’t worry. The guy might be confused too. I guess he was trying to make a joke that nobody understood,” I said.
“He must have thought we were such weird foreigners!” Lao Yang still felt guilty.
“Nah,” I said, “I am pretty sure he’d have told this same story to his English-speaking friends, and they’d probably have challenged him and told him that he was being rude too, saying that ‘my niece goes to Harvard, which is better.’”
After my invigorating conversation at the dinner with Yi and Lao Yang, I couldn’t stop thinking about their choice to say “maybe” at the moment. What I see is that there actually isn’t a right or wrong in cases like this. What if, as an English-as-second-language speaker, he didn’t feel awkward to ask the guy to repeat? Same for the guy as a native speaker too — he could have explained himself after hearing Lao Yang’s near-choking “maybe” — instead of offering mere silence and awkwardness in return. Right?
A lot of times, interpretation is based in part on our own lack of confidence or overconfidence. I urge that we not be discouraged to continue the conversation.
P.S., Special thanks to Alex at the CMU writing center, who taught me the “multi-paragraph rule” about quotation marks. Alex said that it was an invigorating experience chatting with me, being able to talk about something they never had the chance to. There, I learned how to use the word “invigorating.”