Those who know me and have interacted with me, especially in person, are well aware of the fact that I can be a deeply awkward communicator . This awkwardness, though, is not always a bad thing. In many cases, awkwardness, or at least the subjective feeling of awkwardness that occurs frequently for me (and probably with those I communicate with), occurs from going outside of one’s comfort zone, and there are many cases where this awkwardness is in fact a very good thing. Stepping outside of one’s comfort zone may, in time, lead one to become more comfortable with being sociable and outgoing and dealing with potentially uncomfortable situations where communication is far from easy, and this need not be a bad thing at all. I would like to briefly examine at least some of the more uncomfortable moments of my conversations and explain why they were awkward and why that was not necessarily a bad thing.
During my time in Suriname, I commented on one of the most awkward interactions I have had in some time, in mostly listening to a taxi driver rant about his life and the difficulties of his personal situation as well as the state of his country . As it happens, during the course of the trip I had two further interactions with taxi drivers that could best be considered awkward. On my way to the airport in Bogota I had a conversation with a taxi driver who lamented the poor state of English speaking among many older people in the country and the way that Venezuelan illegal immigrants were harming the economic development of the country by moving into the country in massive numbers (he said there were about 4 million Venezuelans in the country, about 9% or so of the entire population of the country) and working illegally for lower wages for survival and preventing some jobs, like construction ones, from going to Colombians for their normal wages. I was struck in this conversation by the similarity between the situation in Colombia and that in the United States vis-a-vis its poorest and most struggling neighbor. Later on, when I finally arrived back in the United States early in the morning, I had a somewhat awkward interaction with my taxi driver home, who happened to be an entrepreneur of Middle Eastern ancestry who also happened to run an eatery for food from that region.
It is easy to understand why my interactions with all three of these particular taxi drivers was awkward, and why this sort of situation is not likely to be uncommon. In all three cases I was sitting right next to the taxi driver, for between 30 minutes and an hour, two of these times early in the morning where traffic was not an issue and where staying awake was. In all of the cases the background of the taxi driver was far different from my own, and in one case I was speaking in a second language. In all of the cases, there were issues of a somewhat sensitive nature, be they political or cultural, going on in the interaction, and though I cannot describe any of the people involved themselves as unpleasant, I cannot say that any of the interactions were comfortable. Talking about politics in our contemporary world is always tinged with danger, and being in a taxi alone with a driver is an experience that is clearly not very safe, at least for this person.
At other times, though, the shoe has definitely been on the other foot. There have certainly been times where I was the person driving around others, and no doubt they were made just as uncomfortable by the interaction, as the driver in such a situation has a great deal of power, and when one combines a situation where one is having a personal conversation with someone one does not know very well with the power disparity between a driver and a passenger, often at a time and/or place where the driver has some key advantages in terms of awareness and sociability, it is clear that such interactions can be problematic. Indeed, at least one film has captured this sort of dynamic, the film Driving Miss Daisy, where the film (however unsuccessfully based on modern sociopolitical views) captured the dynamic of a black chauffeur and his old white employer, a case where the power dynamic of being the driver and of being the employer as well as the racial and cultural differences were a major aspect of the movie’s context.
Yet in a way all of these conversations, and many of the other awkward conversations I have participated in over the course of my deeply uncomfortable life, were adventures. Having a willingness to engage people when I would have preferred to sleep in at least two of the interactions was likely a better decision than simply dozing off and being uninvolved in the trips. Likewise, it was not a bad thing to communicate in Spanish with someone, even if the conversation quickly headed into uncomfortable waters. A previous interaction of that kind with a couple of Catalan tourists gave me my first indication of the deep-seated problems of Catalonia, and that was surely useful in understanding its secessionist tendencies more recently. Who knows whether having a knowledge of the problems of Venezuelan immigration to Colombia will prove to be a worthwhile piece of information to know? But I would not have been aware of it without noticing people selling in the street and communicating it to someone in Spanish who was aware of the problem and willing to talk about it. Is it not worth a little bit of awkwardness to better understand one’s world?
 See, for example:
 See, for example: