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.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

First Impressions: Meet and Greet

Ok, so you know where to go to find international people in your city... now what? You find yourself face-to-face with someone (or a group of someones) who speaks a different language and has a different concept of socially acceptable norms. And while it all feels new and exciting, you suddenly are panic-stricken by the realization that you have no idea what you're doing and are in way over your head. Two of the biggest concerns in your mind are probably: I can't speak their language! and I am going to accidentally offend them! Well, these are probably both true. And guess what? These are true on their side too! But there is good news: these things do not have to keep you from having a beautiful friendship.

(Before I continue, I want to clarify that this blog series is intended for people who are seeking to have personal friendships and be in true community with international people. I believe the best way to develop these authentic friendships is through vulnerability, humbleness, and a desire to share and learn from each other. There are other blogs out there that are geared toward more professional business or political relationships, which should be approached with a lot of prior research and higher initial competence.)

There are three things I do before I first meet an international person...

1. PRAY. I pray for God to open good opportunities for me to meet people, and to give me courage to take the opportunities. Then I ask him to be our "translator" - to somehow help us understand each other beyond our different languages and cultural contexts. In my experience, this really does work! My Burmese friend, Pastor Meng Pu, taught me to do this. Whenever we get together, we pray this first. A few times when we did not pray, we became very frustrated and confused. Then we would stop and pray for clarity and understanding, and with God's help we were able to communicate much better. This gives the verse in Proverbs another level of meaning: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding..."

2. SMILE. Smiling - when it is genuine - is an universal language! It sends the message that you are happy (happy to be there and to meet this person), and have friendly and good intentions. It puts people at ease, too. If you accidentally make some offensive gesture or try to say something in their language and it comes out all wrong, it will very likely be forgiven if you are sincerely smiling.

3. Have GRACE for yourself and for the other person. Remember how I said you will probably offend each other? Approach your encounters with sufficient grace to readily forgive if the person "invades" your personal space or "refuses" to make eye contact. And give yourself enough grace to lay down your pride and make mistakes and look foolish. You may not know what you're doing, and that is ok - just don't pretend you know it all! Be willing to admit you don't know, and be open to being taught and helped. This kind of humble vulnerability is a way to honor your new friend.


Greetings are different all over the world, but the concept of giving a greeting is universal. If you are meeting someone from a culture you are completely unfamiliar with, offer a smile and "Hello," and observe what they do next. Do they nod, bow, reach out to take your hand, touch your shoulder, or move to kiss your cheeks? Like learning a secret hand shake, follow their lead. If they don't give an indication of how they want to greet, you can offer to shake their hand, as that is customary in Western culture, or slightly bow or nod.

Err on the side of modesty, honor, and respect, though. If it is a group or a family, it is probably best for you to address oldest to youngest, and men before women. It tends to be more appropriate to be more affectionate with people of the same sex, too.

Of course, first encounters may be more formal, and as you become friends, the greeting might change. For example, I have a friend who is from Egypt, and when we first met, we shook hands; but after we got to know each other, she began to kiss my cheeks when we greeted.

Make notes to yourself of the greetings you learn - become a student of cultures. For example, if you encounter someone from India for the first time and they demonstrate/teach what is an appropriate formal greeting, then try to remember this for the next time you encounter someone from India. They will not be greatly offended if you greet in a Western way, but they will be impressed, appreciative - and what is more important, honored - if you are able to greet them in a way that is traditional and familiar to them. (For Indians, this would be to stand at arms-length, bow with your palms together in front of you, and say, "Namaste.") To make the effort to find ways to honor another person is a great way to get rid of barriers and build bridges to true friendship.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Where to Find International Friends

Where do you find international friends? Some people take trips to other countries and have incredible, life-changing cross-cultural experiences - and if you are able to do that, I absolutely recommend it. But what if you can't - you don't have the money, you can't take the time off work, your responsibilities at home are full-time, or you can't physically handle a big trip? The beautiful thing is, there are people from all over the world who are moving here! We really don't have to go very far to have a cross-cultural experience. And we don't even need to be in a big city like Chicago or New York, praise the Lord! But your current lifestyle may not put you in the same places as your international neighbors, so you may have no idea how close they are. If you want to meet internationals and make some new friends, you can't just sit where you are and hope they will find you. Here are a few places you could explore:

1. International ministries/organizations

Speaking from personal experience, I recommend that you research what ministries or non-profits are already present in your city. They may function with a small staff and a small budget, but they are often the ones who have the best personal connections with the international population in your community. When I lived in Fort Wayne, I served with International House, which has been serving in the same area for about 15 years, and native Hoosiers are still shocked to discover it, right in their backyard! You may be surprised to learn that there are people in your area who are already providing services for international people. A quick Google search of your city, with key words like "nonprofits and charities" or "refugees and immigrants" could be a good place to start. And of course, don't underestimate the leaders in your church as a possible connecting resource.

There are also bigger organizations that have multiple offices around the country and the world. World Relief and Catholic Charities are just two of the well-known, well-established non-profits that can be found in many cities. Check out their websites below to see if they are near you:

2. Resource centers

Many social/community resource centers help international people, such as free medical clinics and language learning centers. The Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the YMCA are also places where families will go for support. You may want to volunteer or find part time jobs in one of these places.

3. Places of work 

Get out of your comfort zone and eat or shop somewhere you don't normally go! Authentic Mexican restaurants, Indian buffets, Chinese take-outs, or Japanese sushi bars are excellent places to try some delicious foods and meet some interesting people.  Also keep your eye out for local ethnic markets or boutique shops to browse and shop in. If it's the real thing, then chances are it's a small family-run business, and the people who work there are from that country. When you find a place you particularly enjoy, make an intentional effort to frequently visit. The owners or servers will start to recognize you and will be more friendly and open to conversation.

4. Churches

In my hometown of Winston-Salem, there are churches on every corner... sometimes two or three on a corner! I notice that some of the signs/marquees are in Spanish or Korean. I also know that there is usually a variety of nationalities represented in Greek Orthodox churches. Pay attention to the signs of churches in your community. Take note of the ones that are written in other languages or have international flags displayed, and maybe skip your church service some week to visit one of these churches. Be prepared to not understand a word that is spoken or sung, and be open to experiencing styles of worship that might look or sound different from what you are used to. This is ok - it's a cross-cultural experience! People will be very curious about why you are there, but will also be extremely welcoming to you.

Do some research, explore a new corner of your town, be an observer and learner... and pray for God to open your eyes to see the nations among us!