Recently, I had the chance to travel outside of Brazil. Soon after I returned, I began teaching English to a friend who knows less than me. We thought it would be an engaging way for him to learn how to speak and for me how to teach while improving my English also.
The first experience helped me realize how many people do not master English, despite being a language supposedly spoken by many. A lot of people were insecure, and many things during a conversation were not understood. No one noticed or noticed much later all the misunderstandings.
The trip made me more aware of how people talk to each other. The high number of details almost impossible to translate between English and Portuguese. The way each mind switches from one language to another. The feeling that words in our mother language carry more than their pure meaning.
In the latter case, try turning to an acquaintance you have little intimacy, look into his eyes, and say ”I love you” in your mother language. Now, try to do the same in another language you learned after you were older. In the second situation, although we know the meaning is the same, the discomfort is minor or nonexistent.
Amid these remarks, I realized that the problems of people talking in a language they dominate less do not disappear in their mother tongue. Knowing the language difficulty can help clear up a misunderstanding.
In the case of the mother tongue, it is much harder to be aware of such problems. That's when I was unsure if anyone understood what I hope people would, even when I speak Portuguese.
Analyzing my first paragraph
When I started writing this text, there were exactly 62 days I was back home after the trip. Instead of saying 62 days, I wrote the word “recently.“ I believe that when you read it, you saw no issue. Now that you know the exact number of days, you may find it that this was not that recent. You can find it to be a lot of time if you travel a lot.
Maybe you can say that a trip around the world that ended three years ago was recent. The journey to the neighboring town that you usually do once every two months may only seem to have just finished if it was last weekend. Each situation may be different, but we have no problem just saying it was a little time ago. Hardly anyone who reads will find it strange.
You can see similar things over and over in the same paragraph: a language spoken by many, many people I met, many things, I realized much later, etc.
When I write a word that indicates intensity, the size of this intensity that is in my mind is inevitably different from what is in yours. It sounds harmless here, but is it always?
Communication as the source of all problems
Have you ever stopped to realize that communication, or lack thereof, is cited as the failure main reason for various initiatives that require people to talk? Dating, marriages, work relationships, projects, companies, societies, friendships end up in conflict, and usually, the problem pointed out is the inefficient communication between the parties.
I know that often, people say that the problem of lack of communication was growing over time. However, did it ever exist? Maybe every time the parties tried to communicate, they really didn't understand each other. Talking has become a waste of time.
I remember a video where a couple said they found that the word important had a different meaning for each pair. The husband used for things that had priority over all the others. The wife applied in a broader range of situations, which among them had a varying degree of importance. They fought because they paid attention to the so-called important things very differently.
We like to talk without saying anything
For a few days, I began to pay attention to most of the things I said, and that gave no information at all. I noticed that the answer makes people happy and that if we try to be clear, the conversation seems to be annoying.
When we are just small talking, we reach for these all the time. We use words to spend our time to talk. A real conversation takes a lot of energy — both in formulating what we mean and in listening.
Imagine a friend who has returned from a long trip. Probably the first question you will ask is: so how was the trip? There are endless answers to this question. You are just opening the conversation for the person to talk about the trip. It is not a question, but a cue to start talking about the journey.
Your friend can pick up and talk about anything on the trip. Be it something your friend liked a lot or something you might enjoy if you were in the same place. Your friend can focus on the question and answer literally with one word like long, tedious, excellent, tiring, unforgettable, short.
Any of the words may be enough to answer. A reply that says very little to a question you didn't want to know about anything specific. Sounds complicated and even silly, right? I think so. But it happens all the time.
One of the NY Times articles mentioned a study made by a psychologist named Arthur Aron, that states that after answering some questions, a couple might fall in love. Or find out to have any chances together.
One of the questions asks the last time you cried in front of someone else and how were you feeling. It generates a series of elaborate explanations of the situation. The possibilities for response may still vary greatly, but the intention is much clearer.
Most of the conversations I've had in my life that I don't forget were extremely complex, challenging, and detailed. These conversations usually involve private matters, where one or both parties talk about very personal details. It seems that the moment we avoid using questions and answers that say nothing is when we really connect.
Could we communicate otherwise
We often joke that when someone asks us “how are you?”, usually at the beginning of a conversation, we must answer yes. Try to go deeper into the subject, and the other person might find you crazy. Investigate the question or give a complicated answer, and that will be enough.
Here in Brazil, the answer to a ”how are you?” could be another ”how are you?” with a different inflection. We assume the question is just a hello, and we dare not answer with something that will make both sides uncomfortable.
Keeping in mind that communication is a problem for many relationships, we can't just accept that no one talks anymore. There must be ways to communicate in a better war.
Jordan Peterson, a controversial Canadian psychologist who is loved and hated around the world, gives a helpful tip in his book, 12 Rules for Life. When he was arguing with his wife, the first challenge was to interrupt the discussion and stay in separate rooms for a while.
Then, when trying to talk again, each could only speak after explaining what the other just said. The other should agree that the explanation was correct. Try talking like this, and you'll see how exhausted you can be after some minutes. I never tried the method, but it seems interesting.
It's not easy, but it seems to be worth it
I am increasingly trying to be clear about what I say. A lot of my friends are getting tired of hearing me say that we must make sure the meaning of a word is the same for both sides before we go further on a conversation.
I have also noticed resistance in some people to talk about more personal things and ditch the conversation that says nothing. They only feel comfortable talking about the world in general or how they fell about other people. When it comes to personal and more serious business, they have a hard time.
I know I remain blind to most inaccuracies during my speech. I can't tell you how many times I hang out with someone who doesn't understand anything I said, but I think they did. And vice versa.
It seems that my ability to fit a more precise question amid all the mess is increasing, which generates a much more exciting discussion. The feeling at the end is that I just shared a rare moment. My eccentricity seems to be worth it.
So, my curiosity about how people communicate only increases. I also seem more attentive on the subject and hope that more and more people around me are too.