What comes to your mind when someone asks you what is necessary to properly understand another person?
To speak the same language?
I agree that sharing the same language can help to understand each other better. However, there are plenty of situations in which we can make ourselves understood with only a minimum of words.
I shall never forget my uncle Walter and his wife Heide who travelled the world by hitch hiking. Walter is over 80 now, Heide over 70, which makes them the oldest “vagabonds” I have ever heard of. Their insatiable love of adventure attracted much curiosity which made them frequent guests of various talk shows, but that is not the reason why I am mentioning them here.
When I was a child and I heard that they had come back from a travel, I would run over to their house, impatient to hear about their adventures, to see their slides. The thing that amazed me most was how they could orientate in a culture without speaking the local language.
My aunt used to smile every time I brought up that point, and say “Look, as always, we learnt how to say ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’, the rest we managed to express with gestures.” “And that worked?” I asked. “Yes, that worked fine. It was funny, sometimes it took a while but we always finally got what we wanted!” my aunt replied.
Now try to imagine a totally different scenario, try to remember the last time you fought with your partner. Most probably you did speak the same language but understanding did not happen. For some reason your partner seemed not to understand you.
On the other hand, what s/he answered to you did not help solve the issue, either. Depending on your character and the importance of the issue you might have finally given up, slammed a door, broken a vase or even started crying. Or, you might have decided to quit the battlefield, to leave the stand-off, to give it a break.
What happened? Two people who know each other well and who speak the same language could not make themselves understood, hmm…
I observed that such discussions were usually emotionally charged. The words did not reach the other person “neutrally”, they or previous situations in which they had been used triggered stressful emotions.
I remember when a friend told me the story of his father, who trembled every time another person would greet him with a friendly “hi” raising his arm to accompany the greeting. The friend’s father had escaped from Nazi Germany as a child, all memories he had from that time were people in brown shirts walking around, shouting “Heil!”, lifting their arm for a “Nazi salute”. So, for his poor father the sound “hi” + arm lift remained emotionally charged, it took him decades to forget and relax.
Of course, most people we meet would have had less traumatic experiences, but still, certain words or topics might cause stress and hinder an unbiased understanding. No one exists without context, everybody has a history, and words are not perceived neutrally.
So, in order to make ourselves understood it is not just important to choose the right words, we also need the proper receiver, a person who would be able to “decode” our message correctly. Many times that correct decoding depends on similar experience. That’s why we sometimes say “we just clicked”, “we were on the same wavelength” and so on.
On the other hand, that does not mean that we can only communicate properly with people who underwent similar experience like us, but it might take some extra effort to understand the other person’s view. That might be especially the case with intercultural encounters.
One more story in that context, a friend repeatedly told me: “I feel so embarassed when my husband boasts about our son’s good grades. Of course, our son is diligent, he is doing very well and I am proud of him, too; but to boast about his achievements in front of others, I find that to be improper.”
When she finally took heart to discuss this issue with her husband, it came to light that the misunderstanding had to do with their respective family backgrounds. While the husband’s family had always struggled with achievements and were very expressive when they had cause to celebrate, my friend’s family, an aristocratic family, was reserved and preferred to display the elegance of understatement. The core of their conflict, it seemed, was a mere difference in family tradition. It took a while for them to find that out, but they eventually found a happy medium as their just reward.
“Love will find its way through all languages on its own.” (Rumi)