The Right to Remain Silent

By Robine Jean-Pierre

In my Elements of Music course at NYU, the professors pointed out that the rests, or pauses between sounds, make up a piece of music just as much as the actual notes do. The intro to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is so powerful and memorable, in part, because of the rests.

If we take things outside the realm of music, we see that silence is a crucial part of communication. Some of us may be more talkative than others, but no one is ever speaking 100% of the time. We pause when we are listening, when we are thinking about what we want to say, when we feel respect, nervousness, concentration, guilt–it all depends on the scenario, and so it is important that we understand these distinctions.

The Silence of Concentration

The quietness in a library tells you that people are focused and busy at work. The silence in a church might tell you that people are deep in contemplative prayer. A classroom is usually quietest when the students are taking a test. In these examples, the silence itself is not the focus; it is simply a result of some deep, inner process at work.

The Silence of Unity

There are times when silence is the main focus. In school, we often had moments of silence in observance of 9/11, and we did it to demonstrate respect for the friends, relatives and heroes who lost their lives that day. Whenever people take part in a unanimous display of solidarity, it moves me. There is something so powerful about everyone agreeing to stop what they are doing and focus on one shared experience.

The Silence of Disunity

There are other times, however, when silence represents disunity rather than harmony. You might be familiar with what is called “the silent treatment.” Imagine you insulted your father by doing something very foolish behind his back, and now he hasn’t spoken to you for days. Obviously, it’s not because he has nothing to say. I personally hate the silent treatment. One of the easiest ways to hurt me is to deliberately ignore me–but the people who are enforcing it are usually the most hurt of all. They feel that their silence, rather than their words, will more effectively convey their pain, frustration, or disappointment.

Using Silence Constructively

Since silence can convey a message or emotion that is either positive or negative, I want to suggest ways in which we can intentionally use it to promote effective communication.

The Silence of Consideration

In my personal experience, I do not like it when someone answers my questions too quickly or abruptly, as if they knew what I was going to say before I said it. A pause before replying to someone’s question can actually be beneficial for both parties. If, for instance, my sister asked me, “What classes do you think I should take next semester?” pausing will give me time to come up with a thoughtful answer. Plus, it will make her feel important, knowing that I cared to give her my time and thought, rather than hastily dismiss her with the first answer that came to mind. (I highly recommend reading the book Skill with People by Les Giblin; it is a thin handbook full of advice on how to communicate more effectively.)

The Silence of Listening

I have often heard it said that God gave us two ears and one mouth so that we could listen twice as much as we speak.  If you are anything like me, you get irritated when people cut you off mid-sentence (especially when they start their sentence by saying, “Not to cut you off, but…”). I once read somewhere that a person lasts an average of 17 seconds of listening before he/she feels the need to speak again in a conversation.

The basic fact of the matter is that we cannot listen and talk at the same time; even the greatest “multi-taskers” must admit this. Being a good listener means having a willingness to stay silent while someone else has the mic, whether that is for 17 seconds or five whole minutes (I know, that’s a long time, especially for our generation!). If you never pause to listen, and you are the only one speaking, that makes it a monologue, not a dialogue.

The Silence of the Wise

I will end with a word of advice: sometimes silence spares you from a lot of trouble. Think of all those police shows where you have heard this portion of the Miranda rights: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be used against you in the court of law…” It would be smart for an arrested person to exercise that right, rather than say something foolishly that would further incriminate him or her. On a more relatable note, whether it’s the school bully or a family member, silence can be the strongest defense against someone’s antagonism. It can keep you from saying things you will regret, or from stooping down to someone’s level.

I hope this helped you to see silence with a new perspective. I will leave you with a poem I wrote below, titled (of course) “Silence.” Thank you for reading.

The absence of sound.
The brief moment when thin air rests in your ears.
A dull void, empty, cold,
yet as leaden and suffocating
as darkness itself…
are these the definition of silence?
Possibly… but I offer a different interpretation.
Silence
is the ear-splitting screech of raw, pure thoughts
huddling, hesitating in their last moments of privacy:
some yearning anxiously for their spontaneous departure;
others holding on, settling at the bottom of
the ocean floor we call our conscience.
Silence
is the thick black cloth
that envelops these thoughts
(providing protection, yet restraint):
some too fragile to be forced out
into the open;
Others so dense, unstable,
EXPLOSIVE,
that they would drop
like bombs
on the world.

Are You Proud to Be an American?

By Robine Jean-Pierre

In a modern, globalized world, “Where are you from?” is a very common question to encounter. Oddly enough, I have remarked that when people ask it, they usually mean, “What is your ethnicity?” or “What are your roots?” rather than “What is your nationality?” or “Where were you born (and raised)?”

Because of this double meaning, some would answer, “I’m from here [America]” (which would often elicit a face-palm or a “no, that’s not what I meant”), but many would more readily respond, “I’m from Jamaica” or “I’m Mexican” or “I’m Italian,” even though they were all born and raised here, on U.S. soil; some have never even been to their respective “motherlands.”

Growing up, I had a hard time answering this question because I did not know the correct response. Am I Haitian? In terms of nationality, no, because I was born here. Am I American? Yes, but if you were to trace back my lineage, even by one generation, it would go right back to Haiti. Am I Haitian-American? That seems just about right, but isn’t that what you would call someone who has one Haitian parent and one American parent?

The irony is that, even if I identify as Haitian, if I were to go to Haiti right now, they would call me American without a second thought. Something would give me away–either my accent, mannerisms, or the way I dress. In fact, they would even call me a diaspora, which is a condescending term for someone who does not live in Haiti (even if he or she was born there) and comes to visit. You see, then, why such a simple question can be so complicated.

So what does it mean to be American? It’s not really in my jurisdiction to give a definitive answer, especially in light of the tension surrounding some of our president’s latest political decisions. Highlighting the trends that I have noticed, you are considered American here if (a) you were born here and live here; or if you are a descendant of (b) the original European settlers, (c) the indigenous pre-colonial peoples whom we call “Native Americans,” (d) the African slaves brought over during colonial times; or finally (e) if the generations before you have been here long enough and nothing else applies. (For the sake of argument, I distinguish this from the topic of American citizenship.) I am not saying that any of these are right or wrong answers, but that this is the general consensus I have gotten from listening to others discuss this topic.

So my question is this: why do so many of us seem to refrain from identifying as American, even if we fall into one or more of those categories? I can think of two possibilities. The first is ethnocentrism. For first generation Americans, the pressure to disdain American culture is usually externally imposed. Imagine, for example, a girl named Lola, whose parents were born and raised in the Dominican Republic. Lola was born and raised in the U.S. and does not speak Spanish fluently or know how to cook Dominican food. However, her relatives who were born in the D.R. brag about their experience and knowledge of their culture. They tease her for not knowing how to dance bachata at family gatherings. Whether deliberately or unwittingly, those relatives imply that they are the true Dominicans, while Lola is just a cheap imitation. Little by little, they paint her view of being American as inferior, bland, and boring.

The second possibility is a deliberate contempt for this nation and its heritage. The lack of patriotism is easy to find: people despise the greed infused in capitalism; the waste of food, water, and other natural resources; the hypocrisy of the government; and the brutal nature of its foundation, spearheaded by miscreants like Christopher Columbus. Looking at America from a distance, this land might be a beacon of hope and opportunity for some, but it is certainly an object of ridicule and mockery for others. Who would be eager to metaphorically wave their American flag under these conditions?

The irony is that, while this nation does have its undeniable injustices, so many people have come here seeking freedom, and then they use that very same freedom to deride the country that provides it. They have nothing but negative to say about America, yet they continue to attend its schools, take advantage of its welfare programs, and practice free enterprise. There are so many things people take for granted, so many laws and institutions and privileges here that are either fully corrupt or nonexistent in other countries.

Whether you wish to identify as American or not, I will say this: if you are here, make the most of it. No government is perfect, because governments consist of people, and people are not perfect. Embracing your American identity does not mean you sign off on everything our president is doing. It does not mean you are renouncing your family’s heritage, or that you stand for slavery, genocide, or other elements of this country’s dark past and present. Cynicism will only get you so far in life. “We the people of the United States” (as it says in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution) can truly affect change if we put our minds to it. A good place to start would be to reclaim our American spirit.

http://www.experienceproject.com/stories/Know-The-Preamble-To-The-United-States-Constitution/2690633

 

An Nou Palé (Let’s Talk)

by Robine Jean-Pierre

Have you ever heard someone refer to Haitian Creole as “broken French” or “French slang”? This can be offensive to speakers of the language, mainly because it is inaccurate.

Haitian Creole (or kréyol ayisyen) is the main language spoken in Haiti. When we Haitians refer to the language we just call it kréyol, but recognized internationally, adding “Haitian” distinguishes it from the many other types of creoles there are worldwide. Several other Caribbean and/or West Indian nations have creoles, and even Australia does as well.

So what is a creole? A creole starts off as a pidgin, a rudimentary “language” of sorts that combines elements from the languages of two different countries.  It is a makeshift language used mainly for business; that is why many pidgins and creoles have been a direct offspring of imperialism. The vocabulary often comes from the language of the dominant nation while the grammar comes from the language of the subordinate nation (see Maria Khodorkovsky’s article, “Pidgins and Creoles: The Formation of Nonstandard Language”). A pidgin becomes a creole when it is passed down to the next generation of speakers as their primary language.

Haitian Creole is a mix of French, West African dialects spoken by the slaves whom were brought over to Haiti (formerly Hispaniola), and even some minimal indigenous languages such as Taino. (include chart) From this point on, when I refer to Creole I mean Haitian Creole. Growing up hearing it in my home, I find it to be an amusing and colorful language. Sometimes, I feel as if Creole words and phrases capture an idea or emotion better than English does.

To anyone who would wish to learn it, one of the advantages is that one word can be used to mean several things, so you would not have to learn too much vocabulary to express several ideas. For example, whereas in English we have five first person singular pronouns (I, me, my, mine, myself), in Creole these are all expressed with the same word: mwen (aside from myself, which would be tet mwen). In a similar manner, verbs do not have to be conjugated in Creole the way they often are in other languages. In English, the verb “to eat” changes depending on who is the subject (either adding or dropping an ‘s’) but in Creole it is always the same: mwen manje, ou manje, li manje, etc.

On the flip side, I would say that the hardest part is the pronunciation. There are many sounds in Creole that are akin to French and West African dialects, so if you speak any of these languages you would have an advantage. Certain consonant sounds are brought together in ways you would not hear so much in English. For example, consider the word dlo (water) which derives from the French de l’eau (some water, or of water). It might be hard for an American English speaker to say this because no English words, from what I know, ever start with that dl- combination. You might find it in the middle of a word, like medley. But even then, most of us would say the word like “med-lee,” not “meh-dlee.” A lot of beginners (including myself when I was younger) pronounce dlo like the English “glow” for this reason; gl- is more natural to the tongue.

The ‘r’ in Creole is also tricky. For untrained ears it is sometimes just barely audible, like in the word drapo (from drapeau meaning flag). This ‘r’ is pronounced more in the back of your throat, unlike a “Spanish r,” for instance, which is more toward the front of your mouth, using the tip of your tongue. In other Creole words, the ‘r’ more closely resembles an English ‘w,’ especially at the beginning of the word. The word roch (rock, stone) would sound most like “wush” (rhyming with brush).

I hope this article helped you to learn more about Haitian Creole, and made it clear to you that it is indeed a formal language. I encourage you to do your own research, indulge in Haitian culture (especially the food) and learn a few words. You never know when it might come in handy.  Mesi anpil! (Thank you very much!)

Sites to consider:

Watch Your Mouth

by Robine Jean-Pierre

We know what “curse words,” “cuss words,” or “swear words” are when we hear them. While some people reserve them for when they are angry, others just slip them into casual conversation, often without being completely aware of it. In spite of this, I would argue that most of us, if not all, know deep down that using these words is wrong. Or is it?

Some would argue that curse words are “just words.” Following the old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” it is reasonable to propose that words in themselves do not have much power; they are simply abstract thoughts attached to sounds our throats and mouths make, or a collection of characters scrawled or typed on a page.

Others would probably say, “Well yeah, once upon a time those words meant something, but now the definitions have changed, so it doesn’t matter.”  Words change meaning and connotation all the time, sometimes from bad to good or vice versa. The word “fa**ot,” for instance, at one point meant a bundle of sticks, but today it is most often used as an insult hurled at homosexual individuals.

I am of the strong opinion that if a word is or has been recognized as a curse word, we should leave it that way. There is no use trying to reclaim, repurpose, or redefine a word when the better option would be to refuse it altogether. Take the “n-word,” for instance. If it started off as a derogatory, dehumanizing word to describe Black slaves (and eventually their non-slave descendants), I do not agree with Black men calling each other that, putting it in the same category as “friend,” “brother” or “homie”; it just seems foolish and backwards. To make things more complicated, the reclaimed word is not even limited to Black culture anymore; I have seen a Latino boy call his younger brother that, and Asian friends call each other that, just to point out a few examples. Why has a word with such a haunting past now pervaded popular culture?

The bottom line is that I do not believe it’s right to curse, yet I admit that lately, even I do. This is due, in part, to spending a lot of time around fellow college students, many of whom do not share the same convictions or inhibitions as me. While I do not use these words in conversation, I do mutter them under my breath, or scream them in my head when provoked by a disgruntling situation. Sometimes I am not even that upset; it could be something small like not knowing where I put my glasses, or my phone acting up, and I ask myself, “Where are my [bleeping] glasses?” or say, “This stupid piece of [bleep].” The worst part is–I can’t lie–I do get a temporary sense of relief and empowerment when I use these words; it’s as if I can feel the steam being released from my ears.

However, even if that’s the case, then I have to ask myself, why use a negative outlet for my anger when I could use a positive one, one that would add to my overall self-image and wellbeing, rather than take away from it?

I am always reminded of an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants in which Patrick referred to the curse words that SpongeBob recently learned as “sentence enhancers.” On the contrary, I feel that curse words cheapen conversation and weaken the integrity of the sentence that was just spoken. Even some of my professors curse, and while they probably do this to appear relatable, comfortable, or demonstrate that “we are all adults here,” instead it just shows a lack of respect on the part of the speaker for whoever hears them. I am grateful for my engineering drawing professor who made it a policy for us not to curse in class; this was one of the ways he advocated for a professional environment in which we all treated each other with respect.

Perhaps, as in many cases, the problem is not the words we use per se. The problem is that we often give ourselves up to self-deprecating behavior. We look for the easy, sleazy, instantly gratifying ways to express ourselves instead of the wholesome, worthwhile, thoughtful ways. Just imagine an employee who does not get the promotion she was hoping for. Instead of releasing the frustration through something she loves, like bike riding or painting, she chooses to drown out her problems by getting drunk that night, and lashes out at her husband. This is a disheartening but very common story.

And unfortunately, many of us have not been taught alternatives. Often times, our bad habits are learned behaviors, and our family and friends make the best teachers. To give one example, how many times does an abusive parent breed a child who grows up to become an abusive spouse? For both the parent and child, violence is the only way they know to dispose of anger and rejection, rather than through hobbies, counseling, sports, etc.

To make matters worse, we then paint the cheaper, detrimental mode of expression as better because we are afraid to want better for ourselves. To bring it back to the subject of cursing, if we do not curse or are not O.K. with having a friend call us the “b-word,” we fear being labeled as a “goody-two shoes” or a self-righteous prude. It’s easy to curse because “everyone else is doing it” or “it’s just words” but the reality is, when we do, we prove that we have a limited vocabulary and an even more limited view of ourselves and others.

We can keep ourselves in check by asking questions like: “How would I feel if I heard my (future) children use those words? How would my grandmother react to it? Would I expect my prospective boss to hire me if I used those words during the interview?” Sure, these are generalized questions; some people work in an environment that is not as strict, and some people have parents and/or children who curse along with them–but I hope you get the point.

Substituting curse words with sound-alike euphemisms is not a long-term solution, but it is a decent place to start. Wean yourself off of F-bombs with “fudge” or “freak,” but as I said earlier, the words in themselves are not the heart of the problem; they are the just the symptom.  If you feel like it is acceptable to hurl demeaning insults at someone because he took a parking space (or seat on the train) before you did, then the problem is that you do not value and respect people as much as you should.

Furthermore, do you realize that you can damage someone’s psyche without ever letting a curse word escape your lips? Whether you vocalize those emotions or keep them inside, whether you express them with curse words or with scholarly, ostentatious words, your hatred toward someone is just as dangerous and real, and it needs to be handled in a healthy way.

So, I encourage you to find healthy ways to express your emotions, whether joy, lovesickness, pain, or anger. Find what you are passionate about and pursue it. Think before you speak and act. As with any negative habit, it may take a lot of time and determination to break it, but if you watch your mouth, I guarantee that the results will be sweet.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” (Proverbs 18:21a, The Holy Bible)