Fear gets in the way of people expressing themselves. Maybe it’s happened to you. You’re face to face with someone who’d you hope thinks well of you, and instead of conjuring up some fascinating story, questions or wit, all your brain seems to be able to do is focus on how awkward the whole thing feels.

Have you had those moments where your mind goes blank? Or maybe noticed that your hands are sweating excessively? Or that you’re talking too fast?

Conversation can be hard when you’re face to face with a friend, speaking in your native tongue. When you’re speaking in a foreign language, or in an unusual setting, it’s even more so.

Chat over a cup of tea
A good cup of tea sometimes makes all the difference.

Some people go out of their way to avoid a conversation

Or they develop weird quirks to cover up their fears (I’m particular to getting very busy with undue organisation – shall I pop the kettle on?). I’ve worked with teenagers who have sweat dripping down their foreheads, whose legs shake so much my pen rolls off the table and stroke their phones like a baby blanket.

I’ve heard a lawyer ask for reassurance and an articulate academic apologise for some minor grammatical imperfection.

I’ve heard so many people excuse themselves

Which deep down I feel is upsetting. Perhaps because they’re introverted, socially anxious, ignorant or unable to speak the language, but the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy where the more excuses roll, the more difficult navigating a conversation becomes.

I know my students can’t learn effectively when they’re nervous

Which is why, when I’m teaching, I focus on first creating a safe environment and second being genuine in my interest. I try to weave the meaningless exam warble into a narrative where the student is the protagonist of the saga.

I don’t believe in forcing my students to have meaningless conversation.

If we don’t engage in meaningful conversation life becomes dull

In the classroom, this results in boredom and disengagement. Across life, it gets more serious. Not everyone needs the same volume of conversation or social interaction, but without it we feel unrecognised and alone.

When we feel lonely, people may see us as aloof, less than empathic, socially insensitive, perhaps even ungenerous, when, deep down, what’s really going on is that our cognition and self-regulation are distorted by fear.

John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

As a survivor of trauma, I’ve had a very personal experience of dysfunctional cognition and absent self-regulation. I have been distant, blunt, mardy, withdrawn and selfish, but most of all I’ve been afraid. Afraid of even thinking certain thoughts, let alone voicing them.

And I’ve fought for the courage to have impossible conversations

I’ve been through therapy and come out the other side. I’ve learnt to say no, learnt to say yes, and learnt that creating a dialogue is the most important skill.

I’m fascinated by the power of a conversation.

For some of my week, I teach English as a foreign language

Most of the time, I focus on teaching conversational English because the typical school system outputs children who know all their irregular verbs but daren’t use them in case they get them wrong. I love writing and I’m a book geek but being able to have a two-way conversation is the best part of learning any language.

Although I’ve also been know to teach a little physics

Surprised? Well, I do have a physics degree. Physicists are wonderful at analytics and asking good questions, but they’re not known for their conversation skills. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with hard-core scientists and had to learn the hard way to entice them to have a jargon-free conversation with me.

Sometimes my life might come across as unconventional

This website is my record of the stories that matter to me. It’s an ongoing account of my travels and the people I meet. It’s a way of sharing my thoughts and feelings about interactions I experience and witness.

Happenence is a word that doesn’t exist that manages to express the characteristic whimsical delight that colours my life and work. Language is for playing with, business is for helping others and life is for sharing with one another.

On Happenence, I write about:

  • Teaching English as a Foreign language
  • Learning to speak a foreign language
  • Reading many books
  • Travelling thorough unfamiliar cultures and living abroad
  • Surviving trauma
  • Managing my fear response

But you’ll also find my paintings and photos scattered amongst the words.

Are you wondering where to start?

First, you’ll probably want to check out a couple of blog posts. If you can’t stand how I write then you’re not going to want to stick around because I write a lot.

Second, you want to inspect the monthly newsletter. Some of my writing is exclusive to those people who smile to see an email from me in their inbox.

Third, you might want to write to me. Some people have questions, some people have ideas, some people correct my use of particular words and some people want to be my students or collaborate with me.

When I am with my friends, we all have the same thoughts. We’re all in the same school. We go with the same people. We have more or less the same families. To speak to someone who doesn’t see the world as I do is just like weird. The first time I was like, oh my god, how?

But it is good to know that not everyone thinks the same as you. Or is not from your religion so that, apart from English you helped me to see that you will find people who are not the same as you. People will have different thoughts.

Thank you to come to my house and to have a conversation with me, because it’s like weird, but thank you.

Maria, aged 15, Spain

So let’s get started. Pick something to read:

Welcome to my Happenence,

Catherine Oughtibridge

P.S. Whilst some names, dates and locations are changed to protect the identities of people I love. The essence is all true.

P.P.S. You can only become a great teacher by taking on feedback. Feedback for me is like pollen for the bees. Please share some with me.