Language and Communication

My daughter told me about a conversation she had on the commuter train coming back from student teaching in Boston.  It was with a man who was blue collar in background who teased her about the big words she used.

This led us into a conversation about language and how we are all cross-cultural and flexible in language abilities.  We have to switch audiences and contexts all the time.  My daughter loves to talk with teachers because she can quickly start using a vocabulary that assumes a common understanding and leads to more precision in understanding.  Early in my career I was the only geographer at a small college.  When I went to my professional geography meetings I would find comfort and relief in being able to switch to using language that allowed me to easily express things that would take more explanation with other audiences:  “I live on the Kansan till plain just south of the end moraine of the Wisconsinin glacial lobe.”  This one statement tells my geography colleagues a great deal about the age of the landscape, the extent of its being stream-dissected, the type of farming that might be expected there, and its physical location.  I need not say any more.  What a joy to be able to express myself in a language that is rich with meaning for my profession!

Families, of course, are cultures.  A friend told me about going to his in-laws for a meal and his father-in-law saying to his mother-in-law that the roast was a bit dry.  My friend was ready for the explosion, but the only response was, “Yes, you may be right!”  This was not the conversation about identity and worth that he anticipated, but simply a conversation about the roast.  My extended family is very playful with language.  If you are teased, it is merely being playful, and perhaps an indication of affection—there is no other point.  It took my younger daughter some time to figure this out until she had the “eureka” moment.  Now she is probably the largest contributor to this playfulness.

Americans exhibit particular traits when it some to language and communication that truly has to make it difficult to cross cultures.  One trait that has been identified is that of being literal and seeing things in black and white terms.  I once heard of a case of an American who was living in Italy.  Her local permit had to be renewed which would require her to travel some distance with small children.  The local police told her to just say that her children were sick, and thus gain exception to the travel and let them renew it.  But she protested that this would be lying.  The response of the Italian local police was to roll their eyes at her lack of pragmatism.  Americans expect what you to say to be the literal truth and look for connections between words and truthfulness underneath.  In China I always got the sense that it was the words that counted and not the truth underneath—everyone knew it wasn’t true but it was the words that mattered.  And words do matter—often more than Americans realize.  Social norms for hospitality exist that precede getting down to business.  Words are often part of this context-setting and not meant to be taken “literally” but are a piece of the process of honoring guests and making them comfortable.

I have come to appreciate the role of guides that help us cross the many cultures of language and understanding.  They help us move beyond the words to the meaning and context underneath.  I had several friends who were my guides in Hong Kong.  After a meeting, they would answer my questions about what was REALLY going on, or even sit by me during the meeting and whisper to me.  Speaking the same language does not mean that we understand each other.

Sometimes I marvel at our ability to communicate with each other at all. It is hard work.

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