Saturday, March 7, 2015

Beyond words: how to communicate across languages

You've made it through the greeting, and though it may have been somewhat awkward, you should feel encouraged - you've connected! But now there is still that nagging truth that you don't speak the same language. You may not even know the name of the language they speak! Sometimes there is a translator there who will be able to mediate between you, which is great. Praise the Lord for bilingual people! But many times there is not a translator... and let's face it, even if there is a translator at your first meeting, they will not be there all the time.

The good news is that communication is much more than words. In fact, some researchers have determined that the actual words you speak make up only 7% of how you communicate! If you want to test this, turn on a TV show and hit the "mute" button, and watch an episode. You'll be amazed at how much of the plot you figure out without the script.

Here are some other ways you can be prepared to communicate without words:

1. Gestures
Many people "talk with their hands," but how much do these gestures say? More often than not, we're just waving our hands around, punctuating words or working out our emotion. But many things we say can be accompanied by meaningful gestures - pointing to something we're discussing, demonstrating while we give instruction, pantomiming as we tell a story. Practice being intentional with your gestures. Play "Charades" or "Simon Says" with a group of friends. Give each other whole sentences or scenarios to act out - make it more and more challenging!

2. Objects/Props
The more you can use real-time objects to communicate, the better. For example, instead of trying to decipher a recipe, you could cook together, and indicate the difference between the sink and stove, the teaspoon and mixing bowl, the eggs and flour. Or instead of a pep talk about safety, get a well-supplied first-aid kit and open up the packages to show what a band-aid is and how to use it. Pizza might be an odd food for someone to wrap their brain around, so instead of a picture, make or order a pizza and show them how we eat it. Bring a bag of objects with you when you visit, just to use to "strike up a conversation"! The more concrete and hands-on you can make new concepts, the more likely a person is to retain that information. A fun way to practice would be to have some friends get together and each bring an object that they will use to carry on a non-verbal conversation for five minutes with the group.

3. Drawing/showing pictures
Sometimes you just can't get your hands on an object you need to discuss. So carry a sketchbook with you, and keep a great set of photos on your cell/smart phone. You don't have to be an artist or draw elaborate pictures to get your message across. The key is simple, clear, quick images that aid in comprehension. Practice by playing "Pictionary" with your friends and family! And one thing I like about this tactic is that the other person can draw pictures too, to get their message across to you. "Show and Tell" about your family, draw a map to your house or church. I have a friend who would detail whole church sermons to me in sketches:

4. Facial expressions
I said before that smiles are universal. In fact, many facial expressions are universal... sadness, excitement, anger, disapproval, surprise, fear, and confusion. Practice studying as many expressions as you can. If you are in a group, give everyone a stack of paper plates, and have each person draw a face on each side of the plates, showing different emotions or expressions. You could have a guessing game to find out what each face depicts, or you could all draw the same set of expressions and compare how similar the depictions are.

5. Tone of Voice
If you live in an apartment with noisy upstairs neighbors, you can attest to the fact that tone communicates a lot - it's not so much what you say, as how you say it. You can hear warning, scolding, comforting, cheering, and pleading in tone. I mentioned earlier that you should watch a muted TV show... to study the effects of tone, try to watch a TV show (soap operas are the best) or a movie in another language. See how much of the plot you can figure out by the way people sound when they are talking to each other - who loves who? who is angry with who? who is afraid of who? Practice being intentional in the way you use your voice to communicate. If you have a fun and dramatic group of friends, over-dramatize a Shakespearean play or make up your own soap opera.

I hope this gives you some ideas, and some fun ways to study and practice nonverbal communication. Even though we use them naturally and fluently with people who speak our language, we tend to forget that they are valuable tools we can use with people who speak a different language. So it's important that we intentionally develop these skills, so they become a more natural part of our communication.

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