Saturday, May 28, 2011

Is Communication only about Words?

Japanese-inspired bridge

As writers, we are obsessed with words. Not many things delight me more than discovering a new word and being able to use it in the right place. (For a great tip about finding and saving words, visit Julie Musil's blog post 'Tips for Word Thieves.).

Some years ago I flew from New Zealand to the U.K. stopping over in Osaka for the night. On the next leg I sat next to a Japanese woman and we found we could communicate easily without a formal language.

We didn’t know each other’s name. We couldn’t speak or understand each other’s language. But we smiled at each other as we settled in and were almost as close as two people can physically be, for 12 long hours on the flight from Osaka to London.

After a little while we each pointed to our hearts and gave each other our names, then stumbled awkwardly over the pronunciation and didn’t attempt it again. She ordered English breakfast tea with milk and sugar while I sampled udon noodles and green tea. She put a gently restraining hand on mine and shook her head when I was about to pour soy sauce over my dessert.

We showed each other photographs of our families and exclaimed at how beautiful and undoubtedly clever were our respective children. We communicated with gestures, smiles and a few words of broken English. I felt ashamed that I didn’t know any Japanese words to break. We understood that we were each going to visit our adult children, she her daughter, I my daughter and son, who I hadn’t seen for almost five years.

She slept on my shoulder while I looked at the pictures in her magazine and tried to decipher the captions. At the end of our journey we gathered our luggage from the overhead racks, smiled, touched hands briefly and then were separated as we were herded into customs.

Now and then in the long queues we caught each other’s eye and smiled again, raising our eyebrows and rolling our eyes at the long wait. It was all new to me and I moved forward without impatience, enjoying the spectacle of so many different people gathered together. I wondered what lay in wait for some, and sympathised with the harried parents of small children who grizzled or shrieked or whined, exhausted from hours of inactivity.

The cheerful rosy-cheeked customs officer wished me a happy holiday, and I made my way through more passageways, my shoulder aching beneath too-heavy luggage until I came to the arrivals area where my son let out a whoop, leapt over the barrier and hauled me into an embrace.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw my friend again. The greetings between she and her daughter were much more decorous but the joy on their faces could not be mistaken. As we smiled at each other over the shoulders of our adult offspring, it didn’t matter that we had no words to communicate. We already had a shared language. We were mothers sharing the inexpressible joy of being reunited with our children.

What are your thoughts about communicating without a written or spoken language in common? I'd love to hear from you.

29 comments:

  1. Cool post, Leigh. Great idea and a good story. I recently did a Wild West story where the hero and heroine could only communicate non-verbally (at first). Of course, before long, they used the language of love - problem solved!
    http://www.codyyoungblog.blogspot.com/

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  2. Thanks for visiting, Cody. The language of love... yes!

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  3. Nice post. You can say so much without words. My husband often says so much to me before he even opens his mouth.

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  4. Lovely blog, Leigh. Common decency always translates well.

    : )

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  5. Beautiful post, Leigh. There is definitely something to be said about the common thread of love that binds us all together. Thanks for sharing this great story.

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  6. Very good story, I enjoyed it immensely!! I had a similar experience about 5 years ago. I was at the hospital for an upper G.I. series and you have to drink this big glass of horrible tasting stuff but once you get it down it's okay. There was an Italian woman sitting there, a little older than me who began to cry when the nurse handed me this concoction to drink. I sat down beside her and realized quickly she didn't speak a word of English, nor did I speak Italian. She took out her hospital form and showed it to me, pointed to the wording about the test she was having, the pointed to me and the glass of junk I had in my hand. I shook my head at her and pointed to her stomach and she nodded "yes". I pointed to my stomach and nodded "yes". Then she began crying again, pointing to the drink and shaking her head "NO!"

    I felt so bad for her, she was truly terrified of having to drink this sludge. Just then the Nurse came out, took her form and handed her the same glass with the same stuff in it. Well, then she really began to cry. I put my arm around her shoulder and gave her a hug, took a kleenex out of my purse and wiped her tears away.

    I tried to talk to her and tell her I'd show her how to drink the stuff to get rid of it quick. I pointed to myself, then to her to indicate "watch me"...I put the glass to my mouth, pinched my nose and drank it straight down without making any faces. When I was done, I just shrugged my shoulders at her to indicate it was no big deal.

    It took her about 15 minutes to gather the courage then pointed to her nose and to me. She wanted "me" to pinch her nose for her so she could hold the glass with both hands. I pinched her nostrils, she drank it down. Smiled at me and shrugged her shoulders, the same I had done to her.

    We bonded that day and hugged when we finished our drinks. I was called in first, had my series of xrays etc., then she was called in. I waited for her and she was surprised to find me still there. I put both my arms around her and hugged her tight and said "We friends" with a big smile on my face.

    She was truly a lovely woman. We managed to communicate even though we didn't speak each other's language.

    Louise

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  7. Heck, I met my husband in a taxi when he worked driving one after school during college. You can meet people anywhere!!!

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  8. BookBag Lady, what a lovely story.

    Thanks for visiting everyone.

    Nowadays we have so many opportunities to facilitate communication, it makes you wonder why we can't all get along and live in peace.

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  9. Lovely story. I am so glad that you shared it. A smile is probably the best communication tool there is. New follower and can't wait to read more. Donna
    http://mylife-in-stories.blogspot.com

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  10. Following thru blogspot. Hope GFC is back up soon.

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  11. Hello Donna - welcome to my blog :) Glad you enjoyed the post. Lots of problems commenting today in the Blogosphere. :(

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  12. Lovely post. Now following thru GFC and have added you to the ‘blogs I follow’ on my own blog. Can’t wait to read more.!

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  13. Hello Barbara - thanks for visiting and following. "GFC, GFC, GFC," ah... Google Friend Connect!

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  14. I've just had to wipe away a tear or two and clear my throat. Hubby looked at me and asked, "you writing one of those romance scene things again?" : ) hehehe : )

    Thanks for such a lovely post Leigh. It was the image of your son jumping over the barrier that did it for me. Love - pure and simple. Hopefully its not so long before you see him again.

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  15. Aaaw - thanks LaVerne. Made me a bit weepy writing it. If you can visualise a blue mohawk and studs from head to foot it might chase the tears away! It was a fabulous trip.

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  16. So glad to know I wasn't the only sap wiping away tears as I read this. Beautiful!

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  17. Lovely post! It just proves that we are all connected - all we have to do is listen with our hearts and open our minds to communicate to one another.

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  18. Thanks, Jannine. I can replay that day in my mind as if it happened yesterday.

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  19. Oh yes, I felt quite envious about your son's exuberant greeting, Leigh! My two boys are so restrained, although the younger one usually greets me with a big grin. The eldest keeps his cards very close to his chest most of the time, but communication is so different for everyone, and, as demonstrated in your post, sometimes body language can be as effective as words.

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  20. Thanks for sharing a lovely post.

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  21. Hi Cherie and Nas - thanks for visiting. You're so right, Cherie :)

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  22. I spent many years working with special needs adults. There was no language spoken. A glimmer in their eyes meant approval and the gloom under heavy eyelids meant try again. A smile was more than "I'm happy"--it was "you understand", "I approve" or "thank you." A frown could mean no, but also, "I hurt", "please help me" or "I am sad." I listened with my eyes for almost 7 years. They talked, but did not speak. And I could hear when nothing was said.

    I get it.
    Thanks for sharing this post and reminding me of my eight very special friends.
    (you brought out the sentimental side of me...thanks)
    Kimberly

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  23. Thank you, Kimberly. Nice to have you visit :)

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  24. This is such a lovely post. You got me choked up at the thought of being away from my son for five years (unlikely at this point, since he is 2), and then being re-united.

    And I love the idea of speaking the international language of mother (the most spoken language in the world).

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  25. Hi Sally - thanks for visiting my blog. The leap from two to twenty-two seems to happen in a blink. Treasure every second :)

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  26. What a beautiful post Leigh.

    Though we all speak the same language 'verbally', at the same time my husband (and I) and his father don't speak the same language. I'll explain. Last August fil had a stroke. He has all movement and faculties intact after minimal therapy. Except for speech. Now the once verbally opinionated man can only communicate through hand signs and grunts and ever so often a word. We, husband and I will be moving in with him in two weeks and I can't help but worry over the communication gap even though we are the only ones who seem to be able to at all.
    We understand his need to make us understand him where other family members may not. He understands the difficulty for us and tries to find ways other than signs and grunts to get his message across to us. But he knows we will keep trying if he will.

    And I love that your son had a blue mohawk!

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  27. Hello Calisa - thanks so much for visiting my blog. It's a great thing you are doing for your father-in-law. While you're taking care of him I hope you'll also take good care of yourself because that's so important.

    My son's hairstyle has changed frequently over the years!

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  28. Your post brought tears to my eyes. Yes, mothers and their children share a universal language. Wow.

    Thanks so much for the kind mention. I appreciate it!

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  29. Hi Julie. Thank you and you're welcome.

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