begin again…

I am a perpetual beginner. A generalist, an amateur. The sort of person who will learn to knit every stitch in the book, but will never complete a project beyond ‘cat-nip mouse’ (which was itself a creative exercise: I had no pattern, and it was the first time I’d decreased stitches to a point.) So, I find it hard to understand people who will not learn. Who resist tips and suggestions. Who resent being offered ways of improving.

Now, put like that, you may have sympathy. Who was I trying to ‘improve’ this time? But it wasn’t like that. Not really.

We had a rehearsal today for an ecumenical service. I’m not leading the service, and I wasn’t leading the rehearsal. It was led by a highly skilled well trained public speaker, and between us our job was to make sure that everyone knew what they would be doing in the service, and that they could be heard while doing it.

The readers were good. Some of them very good. One or two just OK. None terrible. But there were a few predictable problems: not quite loud enough (especially on a windy day), a bit too fast, not quite at home in the words. Things that can be fixed, things that one can learn to improve. And we had a voice coach there, for goodness sake. Expert resource…

At the end of the rehearsal, I offered a few general comments and suggestions, being very careful to comment on nothing that didn’t apply to more than one person. So, the advice went like this:

  1. There is nothing harder to overcome vocally than roaring wind. If the weather is like this next Friday, we will all have to work hard to be heard. You were all doing well — and under normal circumstances, it will be fine. But if it’s stormy, we’ll all need to be louder. Maybe (trained voice coach) can help us with a volume exercise before we leave today…
  2. One of the things I have been working on with my congregations is the question of who we are talking to in worship. Sometimes we’re talking to each other, sometimes a question is directed at particular people, sometimes our words are directed to God. It’s worth being aware that as we read — who are we talking to?
  3. Usually, when we speak, we are thinking at the same time (I hope!). Thinking naturally slows us down. But when we have a script, it is easy to speed up — to forget natural pauses. So, it’s worth thinking about how we can slow down, get closer to natural speech patterns.Two suggestions. (1) If I am nervous and afraid I will speed up, I use strategies to slow down. Sometimes I make it artificial: at the end of the paragraph, I count ‘one…two…’ to help me pause. Do the artificial thing a few times, and then it becomes natural. Anything to let the words breath.Or–(2) a couple of you have lists to read. Lists are hard. If we are creating a list on the spot, we tend to think about what we are putting in. We imagine the person sitting under a bridge, and we pray for the homeless. We remember the young woman who was going crazy because her baby wouldn’t stop crying, and we pray for new parents. If you picture the thing you’re talking or praying about, it will naturally slow you down.

Now, was any of that helpful? (or would it have been if you were a good-enough, but not trained reader?)

I don’t know. I hoped it would be. I think it was for some of them. But one person got really cross. She said (among other things) ‘we are not experts, we just do the best we can. We haven’t received training.’

Absolutely. That’s why we’re trying to offer you some…

But what she seemed to mean was ‘I don’t want to learn’.

And that I find hard to fathom.

So I wish I could learn how to deal with it, because it happens all too often, and I clearly still don’t know what to do.

14 thoughts on “begin again…”

  1. To whom are we talking when we read – or I guess lead intercessions, or lead lay administered holy communion? Wow, that’s quite a thought. You are clearly very good at getting people to reflect on thier experiences, and perhaps do things differently as a result
    Everything you say about reading aloud tactics makes sense. Getting from the artificial to the authentic, in any new learning situation, involves a period of uncomfortableness when folk can be fragile/tetchy/down right difficult. One of the most powerful things I learnt was that deciding “how you were going to be” and then “being it” transformed your peformance.

  2. I suspect she meant – ‘That is too much to take in at one time. I don’t want to be here anyhow. I am paralysed by the fear that to attempt anything new, better or different is to fail. ‘

    It’s Scotland. It’s a culture enmeshed in blame even yet, and the fear of being better than anybody else, or not being good enough. ‘ It seeks a totally level plain, although it prefers that all posh accents should prove inferior to native ones. (And women may outmanipulate, but preferably not outshine men.) I sometimes get weary with finding the lower seat and sitting firmly on it, but it does to a degree work.

    I apologise to all the native Scots who will perhaps feel that I as an incomer have no right to say this – but it is the observation of thirty five years, and genetically I’m half Scottish.

  3. ‘the fear of being better than anyone else, or not being good enough’ says it all.

    As an American, I find the (West Coast? Scottish? Cowal-and-Buteish?) opposition to excellence hard to make sense of. And it took me a long time to ‘see’ it, or to realize what was happening.

    What is it really about/ where does it come from?

    (and Rosemary, the first people to name it for me were native Scots, so you are probably on safe ground)

  4. West coast Scotch takes it most seriously. Edinburgh has a streak of wishing for fur coat and nae knickers. A close knit community. You will be hard put to it to find more generous people, or ones more ready to lend help. I can actually imagine that wonderful scene of the Amish barn-raising from ‘Witness’ happening here. But you remember the Amish desire to be ‘plain’? That is the price you pay. You can stand in line, and all hammer a nail into a plank of wood at the same height and the same time – as long as nobody desires to hammer in any way differently. You can only keep together by keeping at a median pace.

    If one were excellent – would one expect more? Might it mean one should get faster service, or a larger slice of the cake? Better to be plain, better not to find out.

    Where it breaks down is in the need for specialisms, and in the treatment of people who cannot conform, and in the way it can turn into a deadening fear of getting before or behind.

    You have to coax them out with huge praise of small achievements, and give them a lot of space to grow in confidence.

    What I love about the American culture is its huge positivism – all my American friends are so ready to say: ‘You were wonderful – I love you!’ and they mean it! I can indulge in a little gentle boasting to my American friends. I have very dearly loved British friends with whom I fear to show off my little achievements.

    But I was blessed with a very positive mother (who used to say, so often, ‘Tell people the good stuff while they are alive – don’t leave it for the funeral!!) I miss this very much.

  5. If I heard someone say what that person said to you, I’d hear it as insecurity or defensiveness and consider that she might be someone who hears suggestions for further learning as “You’re not good enough.”

    I know someone who very often comes across either as thinking she knows it all or as not wanting to learn when what it is is a real fear that admitting she could learn something means she’s ignorant or stupid. She’s improving slowly, but years of unfriendly criticism wear off at a snail’s pace. What Rosemary said about coaxing people out certainly applies here.

    A question:
    So what do Scots usually do with those who can’t or won’t conform?

  6. > So what do Scots usually do with those who can’t or won’t conform?

    Either send them off to run the Empire or drive them into the waiting, welcoming arms of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

    Interesting to compare this assessment of Scots sensibilities with the cultural phenomenon known as Jante Law in the nordic countries:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janteloven

  7. I think we often forget just how far the culture of the Western seaboard was for generations Nordic, and also how far the Anglo-Saxon (i.e. Germanic) tradition permeated the Lowlands. A good Scots speaker can read Chaucer aloud with very little trouble. But perhaps more influential is the dreadful struggle against the extremes of poverty in a harsh land.

  8. I’m with Sarah on the defensiveness and insecurity. In my experience people who feel insecure will attack any perceived slight like a frightened, cornered dog.

    As for the Scots’ problem with being either too good or not good enough, it’s also English. At my primary school, nobody was allowed to shine, or if they did, they could be sure to be taken down a peg or two. If you did anything well you were inevitably ‘showing off’. Absolute conformity was the ideal.

  9. As someone who was a beneficiary of your ‘tips and suggestions’ for ‘ways of improving’, I’m saddened that anyone should resist taking advantage of your (usually excellent) advice. But I also have some sympathy with the party concerned, since I, too, come from a culture which is not a million miles removed from the west of Scotland. I don’t think the phenomenon is confined to this part of the world, however. It’s a UK-wide problem, if not a universal one: declining literacy rates, lack of general knowledge, low levels of interest in anything with any element of complexity, dumbing-down of the media, and overall, as a consequence, a fear of standing out from the crowd.

    (Come back, Victor Meldrew, all is forgiven!)

  10. In Scotland it has nothing to do with declining literacy rates at all.

    Well, it is and it is not, a long way from the gospel. I think it enables one, very clearly, to understand Jesus reply to the disciples who want precedence ‘Can you drink of my cup?’ and it helps one get to grips with Phil 2 and John 13 – and the Scottish culture is ready made to hear the parable of the wedding guest who takes a lowly seat, and is asked to move higher up (every Scot’s dream wedding 😉 ). It actually hinders you from hearing John 12.1-8. But is this not the way with human culture? It enables you to hear some things, and cuts you off from others?

  11. Golly! I come back from Vegas and find all this… and not, I think, a truly native response?

    So, tongue firmly in cheek, I offer this as a remedy for non-conformists:
    Put the heid on them
    Say “Who does she think she is?” (gender not specific here)
    Simply ignore them and hope they shut up. Soon.

    And now I really must prepare for Synod…

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