Help for the tongue-tied
A U book on making assertive speech has just been translated into Hebrew for Israelis, usually considered effortless talkers.
Dibur Assertivi Photo: Courtesy
Israelis seem to be among the most talkative people in the world, judging from
what you hear on the street and the number of cellphone minutes they use every
month. So it may be surprising that, nine years after New Harbinger Publications
published the book Talk to Me in the US, Israeli publisher Focus would decide to
translate it into Hebrew for the local audience.
Titled Dibur Assertivi:
Keilim Letikshoret Hevratit Ye’ila (Assertive Speech: Tools for Effective Social
Communication), the 187-page, softcover book is not scientific, based on
clinical research or written by psychologists. The authors – both from San
Francisco – are laymen, but apparently with a lot of practical experience.
Carole Honeychurch, who has a master’s degree, is a freelance writer on
iVillage.com, author of several books and a “relationship expert.” Her
co-author, Angela Watrous, has similar credentials.
Around the world,
whatever language they speak and in whatever culture they were raised, people
have trouble making conversation. It may be with a coworker, superior at work,
spouse or other close relative, date or acquaintance.
become tongue-tied when they have to speak before a large or even a small
For some, speaking is traumatic and turns into a
Others who don’t know what to say at parties or other encounters
have difficulty making personal and social contacts.
One doesn’t hear of
Hebrew courses in the style of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence
People, so this volume should offer some relief.
The authors offer 50
chapters, each focusing on a specific problem or topic, from learning how to
deal with bores, narcissists and overdisclosers to disagreeing with people
without insulting them, dealing with aggressive behavior, and starting or
disengaging from conversation.
The book is nuts and bolts, and its advice
is very down-to- earth.
The chapters, only two to four pages apiece, are
divided among three larger sections: “Transmitting the Message,” “What Are You
Talking About?” and “Get Into the Beat.”
The original English chapters
are much more jazzed up – “Wallflowers Anonymous (Starting Conversations,
Speaking Up)”; “The Trusty Switcheroo (Changing the Subject)”; “Shock the Monkey
(Spicing Up the Conversation)”; “Thanks for Sharing (Dealing with
Overdisclosure)”; “I Don’t Think So (Contradicting Tactfully)”; and “Get Outta
There! (Disengaging from Bad Conversation)” – than the Hebrew version, which I
The Israeli introduction notes that the book is aimed at helping
readers make more efficient conversation and maximize their communications and
their gamut of inter-personal relations, especially the light conversation known
as small talk.
“It is meant to supply the right answers to frustrating
situations resulting from social embarrassment and even avoidance of functioning
in certain social situations that results from social anxiety,” it
There are many ways to “get stuck” in conversations, but it is
difficult to be rescued unless one is trained in such situations. Thus the
volume explains the “rules of the game” for dealing with such jams.
though many of us think we are wonderful conversationalists because we
communicate well with family members, friends or colleagues, this is no proof of
efficient talking skills,” says the introduction to the Hebrew
“When placed in unfamiliar surroundings and [around] strangers
with whom we must suddenly communicate, many Israelis become confused or
helpless, because we don’t know what to expect. We don’t yet know the social
language used by people we don’t know and, of course, we don’t have a clue what
they expect from us.”
Assertive speech, the authors write in the body of
the text, is talk “lacking unnecessary fillers” such as “I don’t know,” “I think
that,” “uh,” “Do you understand?,” and the Hebrew favorites of “ke’ilu,”
“beseder” and “haval al hazman.”
Just avoiding such fillers will make you
seem more intelligent, the authors declare. If you aren’t sure what to say, it’s
better not to be phony and try to look as if you know. Instead, remark: “That’s
an interesting question, I never thought about it,” “What do you think?” or
“Really, I have no idea.” Admitting that you don’t know something, instead of
making it seem that you know everything, broadcasts sincerity and
self-confidence, the book advises. Especially when one is in the position of
lecturer or moderator, there is no sense in making believe. It’s preferable to
respond: “I don’t know. I will check my sources and get back to you with the
answer.” The worst thing is to “stammer half truths.”
means speaking clearly in a way that honors the person to whom you are speaking
and, at the same time, expresses everything you want to say, the authors
continue. “It is not an accusation or judgment of others on what is ‘right’ or
‘wrong,’ but determination to present things from our personal point of view on
how we see the situation and feel about it.”
When one is present at a
social event largely with strangers, it’s natural to cling to someone familiar.
But there is the danger that if you hold on to this person as if he or she were
a lifesaver, you will get stuck and not meet anybody else.
conversation with one person during a social event is liable to cause damage and
harm your personal image,” the authors say. “You are ignoring everyone else and
blocking all opportunity to make contact with them.”
Shy people who find
themselves in this situation should move away from the familiar person at least
part of the time to encourage others to talk to them.
The authors provide
examples with names to illustrate the 50 different lessons.
in the chapter on “Breaking the Ice,” they discuss Peter, who received his first
invitation from work colleagues to come to a gathering at a cafe. One new person
in the marketing department, called Monica, interested him, but as he was very
shy and felt like a “little brother” in such situations, he didn’t know how to
go about making a connection.
Determined to make a change, he grabbed a
chair just opposite Monica. When his colleagues made small talk, including
details of a movie that had just premiered, he managed to make a few comments,
but nothing that caused anyone to sit up and take notice.
Only when they
were about to leave, Peter kept up his eye contact with Monica and asked her how
she felt in her new job. As his colleagues had heard about this before, they
went on their way, but Monica remained and started to talk; Peter was in seventh
“I did it!” he told himself. “I broke the ice!” When they were
back at work, the pair continued to be in touch and even developed a serious
Breaking the ice is easier if you make eye contact, smile,
ask a personal question (but not too personal) and give the impression that you
are really interested. Even if you are a poor conversationalist, the person you
want to connect with will think otherwise.
In their yearning to be
accepted by a social group, individuals sometimes provide too much personal
information and details. Jacob, another person whose story the authors recount,
felt inadequate when his friend Wes always knew how to charm everyone present
and use just the right amount of humor. When he was walking home with Wes, he
asked frankly: “What is it about me that nobody listens to my little stories?
Why am I always frustrated after these encounters?” He friend turned to him and
gave him some sound advice: “Don’t exaggerate.... You have to be balanced in
what you say. For example, don’t give details about [some] family problem of
your sister and about how she got stuck in traffic and arrived late to work.
And when we’re all eating spaghetti, it’s not pleasant to
hear about your stomach problems.... You have to be considerate with other
When Jacob implemented his advice, he found
The authors add their own suggestions: Become
familiar with your surroundings. Don’t tell long and complex stories. Choose a
subject for your conversation that is most suited to the situation and the
Sometimes you can be more intimate, but it depends on the
audience. Spice up your conversation in moderation.
Choose the most
relevant and interesting details. Learn from others. Provide a punch line that
will make your audience interested in what you say. A moment before the peak of
what you have to say, take a breath to make them pay attention. And once you
have reached the peak, if you see from their body language that it’s enough,
Changing the subject properly is an art, to reduce or
prevent any boredom or suffering that listeners have to endure. If what the
speaker has said upsets you (for example, if he badmouths politicians, when your
husband is one), delicately change the subject by saying: “I can’t bear hearing
about politics now. Have you seen the latest A Star is Born?” Some shy people
are embarrassed even to excuse themselves to go to the bathroom in the middle of
lively conversation, the authors note, but doing so “is an opportunity to be
honest, clear and practical.”
There is also a paragraph devoted to how to
avoid embarrassment if you’re responsible for audible flatulence, pieces of
parsley stuck in somebody’s teeth or “errant nose debris.” Watrous and
Honeychurch suggest saying “Oops!” to make light of it in the first case, and to
mention the problem when no one else is around in the other two.
tone of voice is critical in assertive speech. Always suit the timbre to the
place, audience and topic of discussion, as tone of voice is a matter of
sensitivity and practice, and an inappropriate one can offend. Usually you
should not use a loud voice unless you’re talking to people who know you well,
and even then you should be careful, as shouting is a big turnoff. People find a
pleasant, relaxed and stable voice more pleasant than screaming, just as they
prefer the former to whispering or incomprehensible words.
naturally is good advice, loud and wild laughter usually is not. The authors
suggest that such a reaction may mean that the person has difficulty controlling
himself but may also be using it as an escape to hide nervousness. Sometimes
inappropriate laughter can be forgiven, of course, because it hints that you
agree to something, that you’re interested and are taking part in the
conversation and are a “nice person.” If you feel you are about to laugh wildly,
take a deep breath, filling your lungs with air, and then let it out
“Don’t be afraid of a moment of silence from time to time. It’s
OK, and it’s natural. It doesn’t mean that the conversation is dying out and has
to be filled with endless chatting,” the authors write.
should avoid senseless and nasty gossip.
Something unpleasant about
somebody else in the elevator at the office can easily be
“Remember! You never know who is liable to hear you when you
are doing it,” they conclude.