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What You Don't Talk About

2006-07-23 16:02

  One of the recurring1 questions that my students in China often ask is: " What are the things they shouldn't talk about with Americans?" Taboo2 topics tend to make people feel uneasy3. Every culture has these off-limits4 subjects. In ours, the following immediately come to mind:

  1. Age Yes, age is a very sensitive subject to many Americans, especially to women over age 30. In this youth obsessed5 culture, the thought of growing older is a painful one and most of us, if possible, would like to have nothing to do with it. Unfortunately aging is one of the inevitabilities of life and it happens to the best of us. As a result, many Americans work hard to maintain a youthful appearance or at least give the illusion of youth. So the last thing they want is for someone to rub6 their faces in harsh7 reality and ask the unthinkable, " How old are you exactly?"

  This question may result in replies like:" How old do you think I am?" " 30ish, 30 something. I'm in my thirties. Let's just leave it at that8." " I can't remember." " Oh, don't ask me that." " I stopped keeping track9 after I turned 30." " A lot older than what I would like to be."

  Anyhow, if you are dying to know someone's age, this is how you could go about finding out. First you estimate their age by their appearance and mannerism10.Then you subtract11 ten years from that estimation. I guarantee you will get a big smile from that person who will also blush and say, " Wow. You are my best friend. I'm 38 already. Can you believe it?" You, of course, reply, " No. I really can't. You're kidding. You don't look a day over 28.This is amazing." Now that's one surefire12 way to boost someone's ego!

  2. Weight This is one of the touchiest subjects. In America, it is okay, even desirable, to be thin but it is a sin and a huge embarrassment to be overweight. In fact, the thinner you are, the prettier you are considered. Flip through any American fashion magazines, you'll notice that most models are nothing more than skin and bones.A woman who sports this emaciated13,skeletal14 physique is called a waif 15,which is a thin person who appears fragile16 and needy. Believe it not,the waif look was the hottest look of the 1990's. Of course,there are obvious health related advantages to having a slender figure but please don't over diet for the sake of vanity.You could potentially become a victim to horrible eating disorders like anorexia17 and bulimia18.

  Americans are very weight-conscious and rarely disclose how much they weigh……even if they are thin and in great shape19. Therefore, you best not to ask. But if you absolutely have to comment on this subject, it's always safer to say, " Oh, you look like you have lost weight" than " Oh, you look like you put on a few pounds." However, if you would like to be honest but not hurtful, I recommend you choose your words carefully, perhaps by saying:" Hey, you look great. Very healthy looking." And always remember, it's not fat. It's muscular.

  3. Income You should never ever ask how much someone's salary is. There's no way around this one. However, it's perfectly appropriate to ask about their job title and what they do for a living. This information should give you some idea how much they make a year.

  4. Matters of the Heart This is a tricky one. Sometimes you'll run into people who can't wait to pour their hearts out to you. Then there are those who make sure their personal business stays behind closed doors20. The general rule is to not get too personal, too fast. You don't want others to think that you're prying into21 their lives. Therefore, try not to ask too many questions about someone's love life, marriage and family until you have a friendship with this person. Even then, you better wait for your friend to come to you with the matters of their heart.

  5. Is It Real? Many Americans are proponents22 of the all-natural look. Stick with what Mother Nature gave you and do the best you can with it. But how many truly abide by23 this principle? With plastic surgery24 and products like colored contact lens25, hair coloring, acrylic26 nails, etc, the answer would be: not many. I suppose some of us either like to experiment with our looks or are simply unhappy with what we're born with.

  As artificial as the results of these physical alterations may be, they are done to imitate nature. At the end of the day, people want others to believe they're simply born beautiful. So don't ruin it for them by asking, " Hey, I love your eye color. Is it real?"

  What makes certain topics taboo? These topics may lead to disclosure27 of information that people don't want others to know about. In other words, sometimes it's not so much that you asked the wrong question, but that you touched a sore spot28. Regardless, it's difficult to always avoid conversation landmines so be sensible, watch your step29 and try not to open a can of worms30.

  我的中国学生反复提的问题之一就是,"他们不该与美国人谈论的事儿有哪些?"忌讳的话题往往会使人尴尬。每种文化都有这些禁忌的话题,在美国文化中,立即可想起的有下列几个:

  1.年龄是的,对许多美国人来说,年龄是个非常敏感的问题,特别是对年过30的女人来说更是如此。在这个崇尚年轻的文化中,想到变老是很痛苦的,我们大多数人,如果有可能的话,都不想沾它的边。不幸的是,变老是人生不可避免的事情之一,谁都不能例外。结果,许多美国人竭力想维持外貌的年轻,或至少给人留下年轻的假象。所以,他们最不愿别人当面触及痛处,提那个令人不快的问题:"你到底多大年纪了?"

  对这个问题可以有这样几个回答:"你认为我多大了?""30来岁,30左右。我30多岁了。咱们不谈这个了吧。""我记不得了。""噢,别问我这个。""我一过30,就不记年龄了。""比我希望的要老得多。"

  不管怎么说,如果你极想知道某人的年龄,你也是可以打探得到的。首先,你从他们的外貌和言谈举止估算年龄;然后,从你的估计上减去10岁。我敢担保此人会冲你绽放笑容,还会红着脸说,"哇,你是我最好的朋友。我早就38岁了。你能相信吗?"你当然会回答,"不,难以置信。你在开玩笑。你看起来连28都不到。真让人惊叹。"这招肯定会让人的虚荣心得以满足。

  2.体重这是最敏感的话题之一。在美国,长得瘦是不错的,甚至会让人羡慕,但超重就让人极为难堪,是种罪过。实际上,你越瘦,别人会认为你越漂亮。随便翻翻美国哪本时尚杂志,你会发现大多数模特都是皮包骨头。瘦骨嶙峋的女人被称为细挑个儿,看上去弱不禁风。不管你信不信,细挑个儿可是20世纪90年代最酷的。当然,苗条的身材显然还有健康的体格,请不要为了虚荣而过于节食。你可能会成为可怕的饮食失调的受害者,如厌食和食欲过盛。

  美国人很关注体重,且极少披露他们的体重……即使他们很瘦,身材很好。所以,你别问为妙。但如果你非得要讲,那就说"噢,你看起来掉磅了",比"噢,你看起来像是重了几磅"常常要稳妥。然而,如果你想说实话但又不伤人,我建议你用词小心,或许可以说:"嘿,你看起来棒极了。很健康。"千万要记住,那不是脂肪,是肌肉。

  3.收入你绝对不要问别人挣多少钱。这没什么可说的。但你完全可以问他们的工作头衔和以什么为生计。这个信息可以让你对他们一年挣多少有所了解。

  4.心里的事这是个很微妙的问题。有时你会碰到迫不及待向你倾诉心声的人。但有些人时刻确保自己的私事不为外人知晓。总的规则是,不要太急于跟人谈个人私事。不要让人认为你在刺探他们的生活。所以,不要对别人的爱情、婚姻和家庭情况提太多问题,直到你跟此人结成了朋友。即便那时,你最好还是等着你的朋友带着心事来找你谈。

  5.是真的吗?许多美国人都主张天生的相貌。坚持从母体带来的一切并尽力善待之。但有多少人真正地遵守这一原则呢?答案是:不多,因为有整形手术和诸如有色隐形眼镜、染发剂、丙烯酸指甲等产品。我猜我们中有些人或者喜欢去尝试换个长相,或者就是对自己天生的长相不那么满意罢了。

  尽管这些实物改变的效果足可以假乱真,但它们还是仿真的。到头来,人们还是希望别人相信他们就是天生漂亮。所以别问:"嗨,我喜欢你眼睛的颜色。是真的吗?"免得让人失望。

  有些话题为什么犯忌呢?因为这些话题可能会把人们不愿为外人所知的情况泄露出去。换言之,有时你提错了问题倒没什么大不了,但你却戳到了他人的痛处。不管怎样,在谈话中往往难免触雷,所以头脑要清醒些,行事要注意些,尽量不要去触及那些忌讳的问题。

  注释:

  1.recur vi.反复出现,复发

  2.taboo adj.忌讳的

  3.uneasy adj.尴尬的,窘迫的

  4.off-limits adj.[美]禁止使用的

  5.obsess vt.迷住,使着迷

  6.rub vt.触怒,惹恼

  7.harsh adj.无情的,严酷的

  8.leaveitatthat[口]就到此为止,别再说什么(或做什么)

  9.keeptrack(of)记录,计算

  10.mannerism n.举止,(说话的)姿势

  11.subtract vt.减去

  12.surefire adj.[美口]一定能成功的

  13.emaciated adj.消瘦的,憔悴的

  14.skeletal adj.骨瘦如柴的

  15.waif n.细挑个儿

  16.fragile adj.纤弱的

  17.anorexia n.[医]厌食

  18.bulimia n.[医]食欲过盛,易饥症

  19.ingreatshape处于极好状况

  20.behindcloseddoors秘密地(的),背地里(的)

  21.pryinto刺探,打听

  22.proponent n.支持者,辩护者

  23.abideby遵守(决定),信守(诺言)

  24.plasticsurgery[医]整形外科,整复外科

  25.contactlens隐形眼镜片

  26.acrylic n.丙烯酸

  27.disclosure n.泄露,透露

  28.sore spot痛处,创伤,疮疤

  29.watchone'sstep谨慎小心

  30.acanofworms[美俚]一团糟

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