I was chatting with an old friend of mine, and he told me that he never felt inclined to read anything I wrote. Naturally, I was a little miffed. I mean, I pour my heart and soul into my books, columns and these posts here, and people don’t even feel inclined to read it? Why would that be? My friend, helpful as always, explained that it was because I sounded pretentious. My first reaction, of course, was to get offended and say all kinds of nasty things about him. But one has to learn to make use of criticism. After all, if I sound pretentious to somebody, there is no use pointing out that I am not really pretentious because what I sound like and look like and feel like is really what I am to that somebody. That is one of the underlying themes of my first book. Well, not quite, but close enough.
Why do I sound pretentious? And what does that even mean? Those are the questions that I shall analyze today. You see, I take these things very seriously.
A few years ago, during my research years here in Singapore, I met this professor from the US. He was originally from China and had gone to the states as a graduate student. Typically, such first generation Chinese emigrants don’t speak very good English. But this guy spoke extremely well. To my untrained ears, he sounded pretty much identical to an American and I was impressed. Later on, I was sharing my admiration with a Chinese colleague of mine. He wasn’t impressed at all, and said, “This guy is a phoney, he shouldn’t try to sound like an American, he should be speaking like a Chinese who learned English.” I was baffled and asked him, “If I learn Chinese, should I try to sound like you, or try to hang on to my natural accent?” He said that was totally different — one is about being pretentious, the other is about being a good student of a foreign tongue.
When you call someone pretentious, what you are saying is this, “I know what you are. Based on my knowledge, you should be saying and doing certain things, in a certain way. But you are saying or doing something else to impress me or others, pretending to be somebody better or more sophisticated than you really are.”
The implicit assumption behind this accusation is that you know the person. But it is very difficult to know people. Even those who are very close to you. Even yourself. There is only so far you can see within yourself that your knowledge even of yourself is always going to be incomplete. When it comes to casual friends, the chasm between what you think you know and what is really the case could be staggering.
In my case, I think my friend found my writing style a bit pompous perhaps. For example, I usually write “perhaps” instead of “may be.” When I speak, I say “may be” like everybody else. Besides, when it comes to speaking, I’m a stuttering, stammering mess with no voice projection or modulation to save my life. But my writing skills are good enough to land me book commissions and column requests. So, was my friend assuming that I shouldn’t be writing well, based on what he knew about how I spoke? Perhaps. I mean, may be.
However, (I really should start saying “but” instead of “however”) there are a couple of things wrong with that assumption. Everyone of us is a complex collage of multiple personas happily cohabiting in one human body. Kindness and cruelty, nobility and pettiness, humility and pompousness, generous actions and base desires can all co-exist in one person and shine through under the right circumstances. So can my weak articulation and impressive (albeit slightly pretentious) prose.
More importantly, people change over time. About fifteen years ago, I spoke fluent French. So if I preferred conversing with a French friend in his tongue, was I being pretentious given that I couldn’t do it five years before that time? Ok, in that case I really was, but a few years before that, I didn’t speak English either. People change. Their skills change. Their abilities change. Their affinities and interests change. You cannot size up a person at any one point in time and assume that any deviation from your measure is a sign of pretentiousness.
In short, my friend was an ass to have called me pretentious. There, I said it. I have to admit — it felt good.