On Communication Barriers (and How to Break Them)

A few years ago, my family took a vacation to the outer banks of North Carolina. It’s a popular destination for us. We can see family on the way in, and after catching up with them it’s only a few hours drive to the beach. I have a great fondness for the outer banks. They’re never too crowded, but it’s still a bustling enough area to keep things interesting, with lots of shops dotting the area and attractions that are rarely too touristy. With only about a half mile between the ocean and the calm, inward facing sound, you can see the water from just about anywhere, and the moon rise is absolutely stunning.

We decided to take a fishing trip one day because the sky was a bit overcast and we were looking for something to do. After a short drive to the docks, we met our skipper, a strange man in his late fifties with a dark suntan and deep set wrinkles. Stubble dotted the reddish brown hills and valleys of his jowls, which were beginning to sag, but not overmuch. His voice had the long, southern drawl characteristic of the state, accented with sharp, squirrel like overtones which gave him an awkward but charming voice.

He ripped the pull cord on the motor attached to the back of the boat, and we began to meander through the harbor towards the open water. The speed limit was dictated by a “No Wake” rule, so the going was slow. The captain took this time to introduce himself. Much like the stereotypical seamen of classic novellas, he was a braggart and enjoyed telling stories of his past. He began telling us a story about a woman he had met after a fishing trip. He had gone to a bar and said hello to her there.

“She was an Arabian chick, or something, absolutely gorgeous. But she didn’t speak English.”

I cringed at his tactless description; this kind of unfortunate phrasing is all too common in the southern states. Nonetheless, I was interested to hear the story continue.

“I tried to ask her on a date to dinner with me, but she didn’t understand what I was saying. She smiled though, and was thrilled when I bought her a drink. Anyway, a little while later she leads me outside to a car and has me meet with another woman. This one does speak English. She’s a translator. So I ask her to ask the Arabian chick out for a dinner with me, and she agrees. So we go to dinner, and the whole time we are talking to each other but neither of us understand what the other is saying. I’d tell a story, then she’d tell a story, and the whole time we’d smile and laugh without ever understanding a word.”

He was very proud of this story, and if one could ignore the latent southern racism in some of its description, the man did spin a good yarn. He told it much better than I have recounted it here, with more feeling and intrigue. You could tell he had done it before.

I’m not sure why that story has stuck with me. Some of it certainly has to do with the episodic nature of vacation memories, they always stick better than the droll, everyday memories of school or work. But there was something special about that story, something almost transcendent. A no doubt rich tourist from a foreign country with no grasp of the English language meets a Bible Belt angler keeping a business afloat on tourists’ tips. They have a great night appreciating each other as human beings, communicating without understanding, or needing to. Two people as unlikely as any to share such an intimate moment.

I doubt the story had much truth. The plot had too many holes and the captain gave too many sly grins, but he was entertaining, and that was his job. Still, there is a lot of importance in learning to communicate with people who do not speak your language or share your culture.

About a week ago the bus didn’t show up. I had left work early because it was Friday and most of the day was spent on a team building exercise at the bowling alley, and I didn’t feel I would be very useful trying to work for another hour. I was sitting with a Chinese woman as the minutes ticked past, with no sign of the bus. She was beginning to look concerned. Another woman at the stop with a bike asked me the time.

“Half past four.”

“When does the bus arrive?”

“It was supposed to be here at 4:24,” I said. “The next one comes at 54.”

“Thanks,” she said, hurriedly. “I need to get to work by five, so I guess I will have to bike there.”

The Chinese woman tried to follow our conversation. A few minutes later, a courtesy car pulled up.

“The number 16 broke down, its stuck at the station and won’t start. This car is full – we’ll try to get another one out here before the next bus is supposed to come.”

I thanked the woman and she drove on. The Chinese woman sitting next to me looked more concerned and turned to me.

“No?” She asked, shaking her head. “No?”

I tried to explain.

“The bus is broken, it will be here at 4:54.”

She shook her head again, indicating she hadn’t understood. “No?”

I tried one more time, but it was clear she did not speak any English. Just then I had an idea. I pulled out my cell phone and opened my notes app. I placed the bus emoji, followed by the collision/explosion emoji, and then wrote “4:54.” I put my phone in front of her and pointed at it. She examined it for a minute, and then shook her head that she understood.

“Xiè xie,” she said, in a quiet breathy tone. “Xiè xiè.”

It was one of the few Chinese words I actually understood.

A few minutes later the next courtesy car pulled up.

“Are you waiting for the 16? I’m your bus. We’re going down to the South Transit Center.”

“I am,” I said. “She is too.”

I pointed towards the Chinese woman. She looked concerned and unsure of what to do. In the past I had seen her ride another bus after catching the 16, so I knew she needed to get to the transit center. I motioned her inside, smiling. She got up and looked around nervously. I smiled again as the driver tried to explain to her what was happening. She didn’t understand, of course, but I continued to motion her on and eventually she joined us inside. We picked up a few others on the way. One – a white woman in her mid 30s wearing an oversized T-Shirt that still didn’t fit her – wouldn’t shut up about being from Brooklyn, threatening that the driver “didn’t want to mess with her” if he turned out not to be a real transit worker.

Despite her paranoia, the man did indeed drive us to the South Transit Center and didn’t “take us home and eat us.” The Chinese woman stepped out of the car first.

“Xiè xie,” she said, looking at the driver.

“Xiè xie,” she said, looking at me.

Sometimes the most important things we say are said without words at all. When we say I’m fine in a downtrodden or snappy tone of voice, we say more with our tone than with our words. When we pretend not to see somebody near us on the bus because we are afraid of how different they are, we voice they are unwelcome with our body language. When we instead smile, and give a warm good afternoon, we invite others to be receptive and at ease.

Communication is more than just the words we say. It is the exchange of information, much of which is expressed before we ever utter a sound. By appearing helpful to someone with whom you can’t communicate verbally, you might just find a way to help them nonetheless. By wearing a concerned look when listening to a friend speak his mind, you comfort them and allow them to be open. By using cheerful intonation, you can cheer others up, too.

You are not so different from everyone else. Everyone has dreams, everyone has fears, and everyone just wants to get home after a long day of work. There is power in simple gestures of kindness. There is power in understanding. And sometimes you can comfort someone without ever saying a word.


3 thoughts on “On Communication Barriers (and How to Break Them)

  1. Love the observation of humans through public transit. Pretty creative of you to communicate with emojis and numbers!

    And, as always, I could read your prose for days. Keep it up!


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