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Ask questions with ignorant vulnerability, and ye shall receive

A Christmas market is in Aalborg, Denmark, where German is commonly spoken and Nancy Napier manages to communicate.
A Christmas market is in Aalborg, Denmark, where German is commonly spoken and Nancy Napier manages to communicate.

On a recent trip to Germany, I remembered why I smirk. (Note: When I looked up the definition of smirk, it was not what I think of. The definition is “a smug, offensive smile.” My type of smirk is, I hope, more “I’m in a bit of a pickle.” But maybe I’m doing it wrong.)

Back to Germany.

My husband has relatives there, so we went to visit. We visited the cemetery where a favorite aunt is buried, Christmas markets (which are similar across Europe, including Denmark, where I’ve spent time), and ate lots of good Frankfurter wurst. We also spoke lots of German.

Now, I speak “fluid” (not perfect but it keeps on going) German. Over the week, I had many chances to practice on people ranging from an 18-year-old to his 85-year old grandfather. The conversations ranged from our election to Germany’s challenges with refugees, from books we are reading to the best TV shows to binge-watch.

I say my German is “fluid,” because I can talk about anything I want and people understand me, but I don’t have the full vocabulary that others do or the ability to insert nuance that I might do in English. And, of course, relatives are forgiving and let me plug along.

But, there are occasions when I need to go to a store or ask for directions, and that requires talking with people who don’t know me. That’s when the smirk comes in handy.

Before I even open my mouth, I start smiling in that “I’m in a pickle” kind of way. That’s enough to make the other person lean back a little, scrunch up an eyebrow and wait for what comes.

It’s usually obvious that I’m not German, but they often don’t know where I’m from. They seem curious and more open, since I’m being vulnerable right from the start. In contrast, when my husband, who does speak fluent German, starts talking, often people are less forgiving, less willing to stop and help.

My lesson, aside from that I need more practice (and more visits to Germany!?), is that making myself a bit more vulnerable, more exposed, and clearly not being an expert, often generates a more-open reaction.

I do that in my research, which typically takes me into organizations and fields I know nothing about (law enforcement, sports, software). When I admit right off that I’m not an “expert” but want to learn, and when I often ask questions that wouldn’t be the norm, people open up. They certainly seem to respond differently to me than they would to the specialists they normally work with.

And, since my normal mode is not being an expert in anything, I suspect I’ll keep smirking and trying to be vulnerable.

Nancy Napier is distinguished professor, Boise State University,