Since moving to Israel a few years ago, I have been pleasantly surprised by the resources that Israeli organizations devote to worker happiness and satisfaction. In addition to birthday cards and holiday gifts, roughly once a year my work team is invited out of the office for a full day of group bonding. This year, we planned an off-road electric bike tour of a national park in the center of the country.
I am not a neuroscientist, but I listen to a number of mental health podcasts, so I am somewhat of an expert on brain science. I can therefore confidently explain to you that the brain is divided into sections that control different areas of functioning. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive planning and decision making, the medulla controls involuntary muscle movement such as respiration and heartbeat, and the remaining 72% of the brain is tasked with generating anxiety about upcoming social situations.
In the days leading up to the bike tour my prefrontal cortex and medulla worked well. I made good decisions about what to wear on this field trip, and I remembered to breathe. But that 72%, which we experts refer to as the Lobe of Horrors, was vastly overworked, consumed by the stress of knowing that I would be required to make Hebrew small talk for the entire 10 hours of Group Bonding Day.
My prefrontal cortex and I planned some key conversation openers such as ‘How was your Passover?’ and, ‘so, how many of your kids are currently in isolation because of that unfortunately timed youth group trip that seems to have exposed half of the neighborhood?’. The goal was to be interesting enough that no one would question whether my medulla was working properly, but not so interesting that they would want to have prolonged conversations which would require on the spot production of intelligible sentences. All the while, the Lobe of Horrors was manufacturing increasingly creative scenarios in which I would say something stupid, humiliate myself irreparably, lose my job and all my friends, and have to relocate to Bangkok, where the story would start all over again because my Thai is pretty weak.
But my Lobe of Horrors really dropped the ball on this one. In its eagerness to imagine just how many grammar mistakes I could potentially make during this endless affair, it forgot to worry about how incredibly awkward I look while getting on and off a heavy bike that is too tall for me, and how many things there are to crash into while offroading. Hebrew should have been the last thing on my mind, because it turns out that my particular brain chemistry makes it impossible to ride a bike and speak Hebrew at the same time.
While riding the scenic trails, maniacally gripping the handlebars of this bike whose mechanics were highly unclear to me and trying desperately not to die, my inner dialogue went like this:
“Avoid that rock in the road! You should tell the person behind you to watch out for it. The word for ‘watch out’ is תזהר, so say that! But, wait, who is behind you? Because if it’s a woman you should say תזהרי. And how many people are behind you? Maybe you should go with the gender neutral group verb תזהרו. Will you fall off the bike if you turn around to see who’s there? And perhaps now is not the time to think about how gendered verbs don’t fit well in a world where gender is considered to be more of a spectrum, because it seems that Tzvika from finance was behind you all along, and he just slammed his bike into that rock. You should have gone with תזהר…”
The human brain isn’t wired to conjugate timely in a second language while actively trying not to die. Each task is all-consuming, so performing them simultaneously simply cannot be done.
While it was too late for poor Tzvika, I did eventually learn that I was able to shout out non-gendered nouns, such as ‘rock!’ and ‘tree!’, and sometimes just a panlingual ‘AAAHHH!’, which was a most effective way to bond and converse with my Israeli coworkers, and that’s exactly what these days are all about!
The afternoon progressed with little conversation, but plenty of staying alive. And over a late lunch I managed to redeem myself when one of my Hebrew speaking coworkers asked the table, “What was the name of that American show about the psychologist with a radio talk show?”
And because I am a brain scientist who came of age in the 90’s, I knew this one.
“Frasier”, I said confidently, before my Lobe of Horrors could convince me to keep my mouth shut.
“That’s it!”, he said. “And wasn’t Frasier a character on a show about a bar? What show was that?”
“Cheers!”, I shouted, because someone so schooled in American television should not be shy, but proud to share their wisdom.
And as the table took a collective pause to admire the genius in their midst, I closed with the perfectly conjugated “American television! See? there are things I can talk about with you guys!” And even Tzvika from finance had to admit that the line hit its mark. We all laughed, the Lobe of Horrors handed the wheel back to the medulla, and I started to breathe a bit easier.
The moral of the story is threefold:
Time spent learning grammar is not nearly as valuable as time spent watching TV.
Steer clear of the finance department for a few weeks.
And perhaps think twice before biking behind me.