Words are fascinating to me. The fact that so many languages have evolved out of our human experience is a source of constant amazement as well. That we agreed on what the sounds mean so we can communicate tells me that we’re better able to collaborate and connect than some would have us believe.
While I was teaching conversational English in Taiwan right after my first year of university, I noticed something. The longer I interacted with my students – not just in class but in tea houses and on trips across the country – the less I remembered to correct them if they said something that wouldn’t necessarily be used by a native English speaker. In fact, I started to forget to correct students because I understood what they were saying so the “rules” didn’t seem to matter so much. Since I was being paid to teach, I had to build another level of awareness around our conversations so I could make the necessary corrections.
Another thing that happened was I started to understand Mandarin even with very few language lessons. Mandarin filled my head every day from conversations around me to songs on the radio. I used Mandarin brokenly to purchase fruit and vegetables from the local market and learned quickly who was willing to work with me and who took advantage of the fact I was learning. The more I picked up Mandarin and the more I saw my students struggle with the structure of English, the more English seemed strange to me.
The experience of being in the minority and not understanding the language explicitly was pivotal in my growing understanding of communication, collaboration and connection with other human beings. I experienced feelings of deep loneliness at times when my conversations were limited by the fact neither party knew each other’s language well enough to get much past “How are you?” and “Great!”
However, I also experienced feelings of deep connection with others after time spent together traveling, exploring new cities, sharing meals and drawing pictures on napkins to illustrate what we were trying to say. Words weren’t always necessary to communicate and connect.
In fact words can often get in the way of really communicating with each other. We can talk and talk and talk but not really share anything about our true experience. We can say a lot of words about ourselves without sharing a single thing about who we really are and can even alienate others from us because the words stand in the way of what’s real. We may have been socialized to be nice or to “make conversation” or have the belief that a good listener must listen at all times.
In the steam room between laps in the pool last week, I encountered a person who wanted to talk to me or rather at me. At first I gave short responses and didn’t make eye contact. Suddenly extremely exhausted from listening to his constant ramble, my body took over.
Sitting cross-legged, I folded my body over my legs to allow my spine some room to stretch out. The person kept talking to me, asking me to agree with him about some ideas he had about yoga. Instead of answering him, I stayed folded over and silent, my body literally closed to him. At first I wondered if I should just tell him I wasn’t interested in chatting. But It felt like too much energy to waste even on that. Rude? Maybe.
His words pushed me away. But it wasn’t really the content of the words, it was simply that I didn’t feel any connection or desire to connect. I respected that and in essence I also respected him. I didn’t give him anything that wasn’t genuine for me and in that honest response he stopped talking and the steam room became blissfully silent. I communicated something clearly without saying anything.
Words can be used to connect or to push away. I’ve learned a lot about both and continue to do so. Let’s examine how we’ve been socialized to communicate and admit that we’ve got a lot of unlearning to do. I know I do. In bringing awareness to how we communicate and trying new ways of expressing what is true for us, we can also learn how to collaborate in ways that are genuine and meaningful to everyone we choose to connect with.