Updated: May 12, 2021
Originally published Jan. 2016
I was recently traveling through Peru on my honeymoon.
Now, although I´ve thought about this concept of the burden of communication before, it became so much more salient to me as I traveled on this particular trip. You see, I don´t speak Spanish.
Being in a country where you really don´t speak the language has made me think about who should hold the burden of communication. This, meaning, when in a conversation with someone or when trying to successfully express yourself to, say, ask for information or order food or try to find your luggage that has been missing for 6 days (true story people), who should be the one trying harder to make themselves understood? Should it be the person who speaks the way that the majority of the people in that region speak? Meaning the mainstream language and/or dialect. Or should it be the person who speaks a foreign language, relative to that region, or a non-mainstream dialect of the language?
For instance, while in Peru, should the person who speaks Spanish, the native Peruvian, try harder to communicate successfully with say a French-speaker or should the French speaking person try harder to get their point across to the Spanish speaker? I use this example instead of one with English because English is such a powerful and dominant language across many countries, that often times the privileged English speaker feels that the burden should be on the non-English speaker, no matter what the context.
I can also ask this question when it comes to people with diagnosed communication disorders…should the burden be on the communication partner who does not have a communication disorder or should the burden be on the person who has a communication disorder? For example, in a conversation between a person who stutters and person who is fluent most of the time, who should try harder to make sure the other person understands what they are saying?
Something to think about…
But for this blog, I´m going to focus on cultural language differences.
Here´s the thing, it’s been my experience from observations and life that the burden of communication is often put upon the person who is furthest away from the mainstream…meaning it´s the French speaking person in the first example or the person who stutters in the second example.
I see this burden issue play out often when I hear people talking to customer service representatives whose English is a different variety than the person on the other end, some of you may think of these varieties as “broken English.” So much frustration, so many accusations of who should be understanding whom.
But, I believe that within a communication exchange, the burden should be on both (or all) parties involved.
Communication is a dynamic system that involves all entities involved to be successful. It requires the exchange of expression of language and comprehension of language. Without the back and forth dynamic occurring, then successful effective communication will not be met.
While trying to locate my luggage in Peru for 6 days, I encountered so many different instances in-person and on the phone where this concept of the burden of communication played out in so many different ways.
There were 7 things that I noticed worked well so that communication exchanges were effective and successful and it appeared that no one was left with hurt feelings.
These strategies are:
1) use gestures and facial expressions (this is for face-to-face exchanges of course) – but be careful, these can be perceived differently based on culture
2) speak slowly – but don’t be patronizing, the slower pace allows for more processing time
3) use your resources (e,g., calculators, bilingual strangers, pencil and paper, etc.)
4) smile – and be sincere, I promise that will get you further than you think, even when on the phone
5) say “I’m sorry” – meaning…I´m sorry could you repeat that again…could you say that slower, or I´m sorry, I´m not from here, do you speak English?…I´m sorry, I don´t speak Spanish
6) Be quiet and listen
7) Relax – miscommunication sucks for everyone
Now, I know these strategies may be easier said than done, but remember, while you are in the state of, “why can´t this person just freakin´ understand me!” the other person is in the same state of, “why can´t this person just freakin´ understand me!”
It sucks, and sometimes you just wanna scream and curse somebody out. I get it, We´ve all been there and I´m not sayjng that there may not be a time and a place for that…
But, hopefully there will be more times when you can take a step back, understand that the burden of communication is on you just as much as it is on the other person, then maybe, just maybe, we can make the load lighter for everyone.