How Important Is Tolerance When Learning Languages

I like learning languages. Apart from my mother tongue, which is Czech, I speak Italian and English, and I can get by with German and Croatian. I might even remember a few French words, too.

It’s not much the process of learning languages than actually using it with people which requires one special ability: to be very tolerant.

I always said that. The reason why I want to write about this now, is that I always thought I was tolerant but I’ve been finding out that it’s more difficult than I had imagined.

The first time I realized that this was really a crucial personality trait for anyone being in contact with foreigners, was at grammar school. For a few lessons, there was an American teacher, Abigail, teaching English conversation. I remember a student was telling us what he’d been doing the day before: “I and my brother went to the cinema,” he said.

Abigail got furious. She said that one never says “I and my brother” but “my brother and I” – because we express respect for the other person by putting them on the first place. The student’s version sounded egoistic to her. She couldn’t understand.

The student wasn’t egoistic, he only wasn’t very skilled and translated the sencence word by word. We usually say it just like that. Are we an egoistic nation? I hope not. I feel the logic is different. It would be difficult to explain it here but the crucial thing is, there’s no “respectful” or “disrespectful” version of it in Czech. She, as a teacher, might have assumed that it was just an error, and not lack of respect.

It makes me think of a beatiful “story” (or whatever it is) that I heard so much time ago that I don’t remember whom to credit.

A man from the West has a friend from the East. The man from the West wants to be polite and offers a cigarette. He opens the pack, stretches out his hand and lets the other man take a cigarette. After a while the other man wants to repay the kindness. He opens his pack of cigarettes, takes one out and hands it to the other man.

Why did they do it in a different way? Here’s why. The man from the West puts liberty on the first place. He lets the other man choose. He expresses respect by doing so. If he’d chosen a cigarette by himself, it would have seemed that he didn’t trust the other man enough to let him choose from the pack. The man from the East, however, chose the cigarette by himself, also out of respect, because in his culture one presumed that the other man might be shy and would choose a damaged cigarette. Therefore, he chose the best one and handed it to the other man, to be sure his friend got a good cigarette.

Nice, isn’t it? These are just two different ways of offering a cigarette, both very respectful, but you might get offended if you didn’t know the cultural differences.

I honestly don’t know if people in the East hand cigarettes in this way. I like the moral of the story though, which feels like a huge slap in one’s face, expressing something like “Don’t ever judge anybody because you’re probably being just ignorant“.


I remember other examples of being just ignorant, but with a lack of tolerance, it can become a source of conflict.

I used to have a friend from Schweiz. He spoke quite fluent Czech – one of the few who manage to learn it. I once forgot to meet him on Skype as we had arranged. I remember I was very sorry – almost a strange thing for me because I tend to look for external excuses 🙂 , but that time I was really sorry and apologized to him. I also said “don’t be mad” (in Czech). And he got offended.

When he started speaking to me again (fortunately not long afterwards), he explained that he got particularly offended by the phrase as I not only forgot about the arrangement but I was even ordering him not to be mad. He felt it was his right to be mad and me saying that made him feel like being criticized, like if he had been reacting excessively, which he felt wasn’t the case.

I had a really hard time explaining him it was just an ordinary sentence that we say in these situations. It’s more “Please, don’t be mad” kind of thing, not “stop being mad immediately”. We, Czechs, sort of feel it to be the first, not the latter.


I used to think he and Abigail weren’t tolerant enough. But I’ve found out personally that it’s more difficult than it seems.

I have a lot of contact with Italians. When my half-Italian child was born, I remember a thing that I just couldn’t stand hearing. The Italians have a strange way of calling children within the family. Basically, it you’re a mother, you have a son, but you don’t call him “son”, you call him “mamma”. If you’re a father, you call your son “papa”. An uncle will call his nephew “uncle”. A grandmother will call her grandson “granny”. Etc.

If you have children you know at the beginning it’s a little race for which word the child is going to say first. Is it going to be “mum” or “dad” or something else? In a Czech family, your relatives help you. They say “Charlie, look at your mamma!”, or “Christie, give it to your daddy!”. But in an Italian family, you’re on your own. You have to say “Mamma, do you want to play?”, “Mamma, I’ve made a porridge for you, honey.” etc. Otherwise the child is probably never going to know what he/she is supposed to call you and might even say “grandma” first, or even “uncle”, because an Italian child has so many uncles who, of course, all of them, constantly call the child “uncle”, that it might occur to the child to say just that.

I never confronted anyone about this but honestly I felt kind of irritated sometimes. Of course, it doesn’t matter who the child is going to call first, but the fact that everyone shouts their own “words” at the child all the time makes me think exaclty of the egoism that Abigail saw in the poor student’s sentence…

And how difficult it is for me, normally a very polite person, to use the Italian polite form of address (the Italian Lei) only moderately, as they percieve it rather as a way of keeping distance, while in Czech it’s a must and not using it is really rude?

Getting used to different customs and mentality is much more difficult than just learning the languages, but you can get used to them, and even use their ways of thinking, if you know the differences. That requires simple acceptance. However, if you don’t know the differences, and you can’t ever know everything, that’s when tolerance is needed. Please, be tolerant.


Relationships And Decision-Making

When writing about my ex-boyfriend last time, one other interesting thing got into my mind. Thinking about it and trying to put my thoughts into words I realized there was a difference in how people make their decisions in their relationships. Both of them might seem appealing in a way but what is the real difference between them?

Kevin would often seek my advice on things. He liked the challenge of facing a different point of view and he would also change his opinion if he thought mine was better. He was none of the despotic ruler some people can be in a relationship. And when making decisions he was like: If you persuade me you’re right then I’ll do what you say. I don’t necessarily possess the best solution. If I see that yours is better then I’ll adopt it.

It seems alright. In fact, I thought it was alright. I just felt there was something problematic about it.

In a relationship, most of the decisions of one party influence the other party. In a family with children it is probably more evident. If the husband receives an offer to go to work abroad then it is crucial to have a discussion in the family and decide together since it will probably influence every single aspect of life for all members of the family.

But if there are no children, the two people can easily get the impression that they are two independent individuals who kind of support each other on their individual paths and that they luckily agree on many things (that’s why they like each other) and they somehow manage to share their journeys for a little while.

I think there are two types of relationships:

  1. Those where the people are two separate individuals discussing things but being independent in their deisions
  2. Those where the people are more dependent on each other and not only discuss things but co-decide.

An important note: I’m sure both ways have their pros and cons. Just as I’m sure that both points of view are in a way quite reasonable. But just as no two human beings are identical, you can’t give an identical advice to everybody. What you need is balance. If you feel you might be too dependent on your partner and life’s kind of f*cked up then Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Travelled is a must-read for you as it sustains more of the two-individuals kind of relationships (it’s full of other great advices, too). Though, if you are already quite individualistic, and the relationship doesn’t work well either, it might be good to reconsider your way of co-living with your partner.

Now try to remember your early relationship(s). Has it ever happened to you that you had a boyfriend/girlfriend and some “external” influence broke it? Maybe you decided to study at a university which was too far away. Or your partner started a carreer which was too time-consuming and you ended up splitting up after a while? Or one of you decided to take up jogging instead of smoking marihuana every day… :o)

It can quite easily happen when you are in your teens. Why is it? It’s because you’re facing some determinative choices that deeply influence your life, and you instinctively feel (or your parents/friends tell you) that you have to decide for yourself, and if you let your naive feelings decide for you then you’ll be sorry afterwards.

I can’t prove it wrong and I’ll probably be no different as a mother. When you’re in your teens you’re basically looking for yourself and you shouldn’t get trapped where you are just because your partner is currently there. But what does a decision made in this way say to your partner? It says: Our relationship is not important enough to make me change my decision. Our relationship is not a serious thing.

If it happens in your teens and you’re the one who gets dumped because of such a decision it probably hurts but hopefully you’ll see that it wasn’t a serious thing for you either. (Maybe it was. But hopefully not.)

However, is it a good approach when you are in your 20’s or 30’s? Are you supposed to follow your own individual life style and make all the choices by yourself?

Of course, there might be a difference between couples who have kids already and those who don’t. But if your relationship is meant to be the base for your future family, isn’t it good to adopt some of the principles right away? Will your partner even want to set up a family with you if you remain an independent individual in all your decisions?

I feel this era is more inclined to the independent-individual kind of thing but remember that it is also inclined to the “if-it-doesn’t-work-let’s-get-a-divorce” thing.

I don’t want to say that a good partner is only the one who will always do what you want. There’s no completely right or completely wrong approach, and you probably need a little bit of each of them. I just think it’s good to see the difference.

How Inspiring a Breakup Can Be

Kevin and I got together some three years ago. And we split up some four months afterwards.

It was a spectacular example of how other people can never give you what you need to have inside of yourself.

Kevin was very intelligent, intellectual, ambitious, competitive, a perfectionist like me, well-mannered, very self-absorbed, kind of lonely and also quite philosophical. I had always felt we had something important in common: our lonely childhoods. His was probably even more depressive than mine because I always had SOME friends and I had my brother. On the other hand, Kevin was an only child and in his childhood he spent a great deal of time just playing video games and thinking he didn’t need anybody.

I believe in the ‘Inner Child’ thing and I think we both were similar in our Inner Childhood Loneliness.

Kevin was interesting in one thing: He was able to be very honest with himself even if only retrospectively, and he wasn’t afraid to share his realizations with me. People often try to justify their behavior even long after they had done someting, or they tend to articulate the same old opinions that they don’t in fact feel to be true any more, just so that they don’t have to admit they had been wrong. Kevin was quite able to admit, for example, that he had been mad at me and had argued with me because he didn’t like that I came up with a certain idea first.

The relationship was based on sharing ideas and opinions. He loved to debate and he liked that I wasn’t afraid of not agreeing with him. Eventually it backfired, of course, with him admitting not being able to bear that I didn’t agree.

He was one of the few workaholics I know who don’t actually work. He was 26, writing his PhD. dissertation, voluntarily co-managing some organisations and events focused on raising environmental awareness (which wasn’t for money nor for nature), travelling throughout the world due to both the dissertation and environmental organizations, and he was calling all of this ‘work’. He had a rather rigid regime in his work (as probably anybody who has to do someting without fixed working hours), drew schemes, kept his meticulous agenda, and even took a vacation at times – and called it a ‘vacation’ with all seriousness just as if he indeed was employed and some kind of a boss had had to approve of it.

By contrast, in his free time (i.e. when he wasn’t working) he was spontaneous and funny. We had a similar sense of humour I believe. I remember us walking through the beautiful Czech city of Český Krumlov, in a drunk-like mood, laughing out loud about who knows what. I liked his clothes – smart casual, flip-flops, bright-coloured scarfs – it contrasted the rigid seriousness that he maintained about work-related issues.

Strangely, he might have been described as a spoiled brat who had everything he wanted, but he was also very ambitious, studying hard and getting straight A’s throughout high school, college and university. What’s more, he actually remembered the things he had learnt.

The period when we were together was such a boost to my self-confidence, inspiration and creativity. It was the only time I felt I could do anything I wanted. He was the embodiment of all the motivational stuff – like if you want something you just need to work hard and believe in yourself, and you will reach it. He was the inspiring intelligent young man who is just travelling all the time, does not have to worry about money, a man who pursues his dreams by doing something he likes. And I felt that if HE liked me then I was worth something. I faced with courage a lot of challenges and setbacks and felt invincible.

He was quite critical and I once said to a friend that unlike the unconditional love, he only liked people who were good at something so if he liked me it gave me the feeling that I was indeed good at something. Unconditional love couldn’t assure you of anything. That’s what I thought. This too backfired.

When we broke up it wasn’t just him who was taken away from me – it was my feeling of my own self-worth, the self-confidence and a certain kind of overall ecstasy. It was the addictive life-style of crazy young people with no limitations. I can only compare it to a drug being taken away from me. I was mad at him because he took the ecstasy away, not because HE wasn’t there.

All the motivational stuff says you need to find hapiness within yourself and it’s true. I’m honestly working on it now.