Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Slow Slow Slow vs Go Go Go: The Art of Serbian Conversation

Warning: Gross generalizations ahead....

When a Serb wakes up in the morning, he or she lies in bed for a while enjoying the sensation. Then he or she gets up and wanders over to the balcony or kitchen for a coffee with family members (who he invariably lives with - the chances of a Serb living alone are statistically slender.) They sit companionably chit chatting together, stretching that first conversation of the day out for as long as possible, even an hour or more.

When a Serb goes to a cafe or takes a break during the day, the same thing happens. He or she sits with friends for hours talking and talking and talking. Later, if the Serb goes out at night for dinner, it's understood that he will occupy the restaurant table (or friend's dining table) conversing for the entire evening until it's time to go to sleep.

If there were an Olympic competition for sitting around talking with friends and relatives, the final contest would come down to the Irish and the Serbs, and the Serbs would win. The Americans wouldn't even be able to field a team.

My friend Adriana (formerly Jadranka) who left her family and name back in Zagreb when she moved to the States in the early 90s, came over for dinner last night around 6:30pm. First she and I talked as I fixed supper. Then my husband joined in as we all ate together. By 8:50pm, my head was aching. I needed a vacation from all the talking. Escaping, guiltily, to sit for a bit by myself in the other room without talking to anyone was an enormous relief. By 10:30pm, I was happily asleep by myself in bed as the voices continued murmuring in the kitchen for hours later in the night.

I just can't talk that long. I can talk all day at the office, but that's different because it's short, pointed conversations with a series of very different people. You joke in the hallway, then you take a brief meeting with a new client, then you figure out a gameplan with co-workers, and then you make a few quick calls. It's not just different tones and people, it's action, action, action. Each conversation moves things forward. A working relationship is slightly stronger, an appointment is nailed down, schedules determined, orders given and received.... things have happened. People have been hired (or fired), money has been made, plans set, etc.

Conversations, for me, have always been mainly for the purpose of taking action. Step one: figure out your plan with a pointed conversation. Step Two: take action. Step Three: talk to analyze the results so you can take action better next time round. Step Four: start on the next activity on your list.

It's all part of what Adriana calls American's "Go Go Go" mental pattern. It's why we have drive-through banks and pharmacies, and why restaurants expect to flip dinner tables (sit new customers at the same old table) 2-3 times per evening. It's also why time management, the art of getting more and more things done in each day's limited time, is critical to career and personal success. It can also supposedly lower your stress level. (If you can manage time and tasks so beautifully that everything gets done without losing your breath or mind, then presumably you'll exist in a state of activity-balancing nirvana and be truly relaxed. It's all about getting the proper rythmn while juggling, really. Well really not because then you might not be human, but that is the scripture I lived my entire school and business life in accordance with.)

Serbs, on the other hand, have a "slow slow slow" mental pattern. It's not that they are stupid or unable to get things done, it's that they prefer to take their time with lots and lots of breaks for conversation. Because, without sitting around for hours every day enjoying lengthy conversations with your family and friends, life isn't worth living. What's the point to activity, to getting things done, when life's true pleasure is already right in front of you? Coffee, conversation... that's the Serbian good life.

Except apparently for me. Because when I wake up in the morning, I lie for ten minutes in bed making a mental list of what needs to get done that day. Then I spring into action, preferably ticking each item off a written list as I do it. If someone wants me to stop and sit around and chit chat for more than an hour, I get so restless and itchy that I want to kill them. Acck! Let me alone! I'm a motion-machine. Can't help it, been conditioned that way.

Which is why I'm grateful that my husband has so many friends and family with whom he can sit about and shoot the breeze. They literally take some of the burden of talking off my shoulders. I don't have to be always ready to sit down and talk for hours at a moment's notice anytime day or night, because they will be. Don't get me wrong, he's a fascinating man who I love practically more than life itself. I'm just constitutionally unable to live life the Serbian slow slow slow way. But, I'm trying to learn to be.


Dimitri Thompson said...

This is some funny s right there!! But true!! Ask my American wife.
Serbian in US

Sinisa said...

hahaha a great read, thoroughly enjoyable. I love your witty remarks, you are a special lady, and your husband is certainly a lucky man :)

Regards from Belgrade, and please keep on writing

Sinisa said...

Oh, and I forgot to put it in the previous comment, something that you might relate to: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086004/

(This is how it looked like in Belgrade in 80's)