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BIOGRAPHY – My Journey

I am not a naturally gifted speaker but I am someone who has worked extremely hard to get where I am today. I consider speech to be both my greatest weakness and my biggest strength in life. When I was a child mutism was a big issue for me; I couldn’t talk even if I wanted to in situations where I felt uncomfortable or shy. In fact, I do still suffer from mutism, but improving my speaking skills as a result of making over 500 YouTube videos and changing my lifestyle in ways that suit my introverted personality means that it happens much less often nowadays.

Speaking for me is full of contradictions: in some situations I close up like a clam and can’t say a word, and in other situations I can’t shut up! At school I always sat at the front of the class and put my hand up for every question, and at university I happily engaged in debates with lecturers and students alike, often dominating seminars with my outspoken opinions (I graduated with a First Class degree in English Literature). Another contradiction: while I can give a spontaneous talk lasting an hour to a crowd of 200 people with relative ease, I sometimes feel painfully awkward when saying ‘thank you’ to a cashier in a shop.

The English language and its words have always been an imaginative escape for me. When I was little I would even get absorbed reading the back of the shampoo bottle while having a bath: ‘Aqua, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate…’. Another fixation I had at around ten years old was reading every entry in my giant Oxford English Dictionary until I finished it.

My fascination with the English language began with reading words, though over time this has changed into the sounds of words and voices speaking words. The sounds of speech, word choice, the presence or absence of vocal ticks and the position of a person’s voice is something that to me carries layers upon layers of normally hidden information. When I hear a voice now, I can peer into a person’s psychology, like an x-ray machine. However, I limit those kinds of observations as doing so and talking about what I find is snooping and boundary violation, unless I have been specifically asked to read a person in that way.

A big failure for me is that so far my talent for language does not extend to actually speaking any foreign languages beyond the basics. While my ear can quickly pick up a language when it comes to understanding what is going on, my tongue is frozen unless I am completely comfortable. I lived in Turkey for two and a half years and during that time I can only recall one conversation where I felt comfortable enough that I let go and actually spoke Turkish, absolutely astounding myself that I could speak the language, for once! The rest of the time either my mind was blank or I would awkwardly deflect attempts at conversation with short, automatic answers. Before living in Turkey I did encounter instances of foreign language mutism in myself but it was definitely not on such an impossible and frustrating level. If there can be any positives to take away from this experience of personal failure, I know how to make people who have a tendency to mutism when speaking English comfortable and how to get them speaking when normally they can’t say a word. When this has happened in the past it has been immensely fulfilling to give another person the gift of speech over mutism. It’s a wonderful gift and I wish I could give it to myself so I could speak foreign languages too!

In terms of my own voice and speaking skills, this is something that continues to evolve. Whereas I used to be motivated to eliminate my personal speech difficulties so I did not have to face them anymore, now I am much more accepting of what makes my own speech unique. This is also shown in that nowadays I am much more compelled towards being authentic rather than perfect in the way that I present myself in videos. My view is that with persistence speech difficulties can be overcome and triumphed over, though not all of the battles we face are worth the strain of a long, hard fight. So I recommend that you choose your battles wisely.

And lastly, I hope that as a teacher I fill you with knowledge, make you think, and give you inspiration to speak.

Sympathy, Empathy, and Caring (Part 1 of 3): A Proper Understanding of Sympathy

Guest Post by Nina LaLumia

 

A family of words and their history

The word ‘sympathy’ has its roots in Ancient Greek. The prefix sym- means “with” or “together,” as in sym-phony: a collection that makes sounds together, producing harmony or music. Pathy refers to suffering or undergoing something and being affected emotionally. Think of pathology: the study of things that people suffer: diseases. So at root, sympathy is being affected by the condition of another living being with an emotion that corresponds to that being’s condition—or at least to our perception of it. Use of this word with this meaning in English goes back as far as the 1600s. In 1757, Edmund Burke wrote: “Sympathy must be considered as a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in a good measure as he is affected.”

Everyone is familiar with the difference between being active and being passive: it’s the difference between your doing something and having something done to you. The nouns are ‘agent’ (a person who does something) and ‘patient’ (a person to whom something happens). There are also the abstract nouns ‘action’ and ‘passion’ (making something happen and having something happen to you). Similarly, we can affect things or be affected by them.

To fall in love is a passionate affair: something happens to you—something that can be wonderful and also painful. To feel affection for someone is also to be affected—to open the door and allow things to come in. If I open the door and allow myself to feel affection for Laura, Laura now matters to me in a new way. I’m now open (and vulnerable as well) to being affected emotionally by what Laura says and does, and to being affected by what happens to her. If something good happens in Laura’s life, I feel good about it; if something bad happens, I feel bad about it—it’s painful for me.

The philosophical theory of David Hume (1711-76)

In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume defines sympathy as the capacity to be affected emotionally by what happens to a person for whom we feel affection—both the good and the bad. Hume was studying the mind (doing psychology) from the modern scientific point of view. So for him, sympathy is not some magical affinity or “energy.” It happens through the subconscious observation of facial expressions, tone of voice, gesture and posture. In other words, sympathy happens through the medium of non-verbal communication. (I use the word ‘subconscious’ to suggest that these observations are below the surface of conscious awareness. We can notice them if we make the effort, but usually we don’t. Usually, we simply feel their effect.)

Sympathy of this kind is mainly interpersonal and face-to-face, and it requires that the two people involved already have a personal connection. But we can also feel sympathy through other media. (‘Media’ is the plural of ‘medium.’ We use the expression ‘the media’ to talk about the various ways or means by which we send messages.) Hume talks about the theatre; we could also talk about movies, works of fiction or poetry.

When you watch a scary movie, the normal thing to happen is that you yourself feel scared. Something is off (either with you or the movie) if you sit there unaffected, thinking something like, “Oh, if I were in that situation, I too would be scared,” or “I can understand why a person in that situation would feel fear.” There’s also something off if you don’t feel happy when Julia Roberts smiles. (If you don’t like Julia Roberts, think of someone whose smile you do find appealing.)

Whether it’s a good feeling or a bad one, happy or sad, we catch on to what someone else is feeling (or what they represent themselves as feeling) much more easily if we already have some sense of connection with him or her. And usually we develop a sense of connection with another person if they are appealing: if they appeal to us either because of their visible beauty or some beautiful character trait—their sense of humour, their courage, their loyalty as a friend, or something like that. So also, an artist has to create that sense of connection if we are to be moved by what happens to a fictional character in a movie or novel.

The last thing to be said here, so that we have a fair sketch of the whole picture, is that in general sympathy is not merely an emotional experience; it also moves us to do something. For example, adverts for charities that show children with dirty, tear-stained faces appeal to our sympathy and are designed so that we will be moved to donate some of our money. This kind of emotional response to the suffering of another living being is sometimes called “pity.”

This is usually what people nowadays think about when they hear the word ‘sympathy.’ But in the fuller picture that Hume offers, we can also be moved by good feelings. For example, if we feel affection for someone, we are usually moved to do good things for them: for example, to help them achieve their goals or to give them things they find pleasant.

The next two posts will discuss two aspects of sympathy in more detail. First, it is social and can be studied from a biological perspective—that is, it serves a function in relationships between people and in relationships between other social animals. Second, it is meant to move us—not only “move” us emotionally, but also literally move us to do something. What it should move us to do is to care authentically.