The year was 1999. I had been living in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, as a Peace Corps volunteer for a little over six months. And my penchant for miscommunication was more advanced than my language skills at this point in my two-year assignment–as I was about to discover.
Language, Safety, & The Perils of Miscommunication
Our story takes place in a bar in the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk in the northeast corner of Kazakhstan, a little less than 100 miles from the Russian border. A soldier is standing beside me with his Kalashnikov AK-74 pointed dangerously close to my body. And a drunk man twice my size who had just hurled his fist at me is on his feet, inches from my face, and gesticulating wildly.
How I was going to live up to the “peace” component of my Peace Corps assignment wasn’t clear. What I did know, through the stress and anxiety and fear that was tensing up my body, was that I didn’t have the language for this.
But I think I started way too late in the story. Let’s back up for a minute and understand how we arrived at our precarious situation.
We recently published 6 Tips For How To Be a World Class Host and then 6 Tips For How To Be a World Class Guest. It wasn’t coincidence that the number one tip in both articles was communication.
We said that communication was the key to any successful relationship. And that consistent and quality communication would make or break your experience as an Airbnb or VRBO host or guest.
But what happens when your best intentions at communication, your best efforts, the skills you believe you have end up pushing your face in the mud? When your language fails you? Or sometimes, when you fail your language?
Language: The Great Unifier
One of the most fascinating and unique characteristics that define our species is language. Human language is thought to be at least 150,000 to 200,000 years old. It is distinct from any other form of communication in that it is compositional.
Mark Pagel, Professor at the School of Biological Sciences in the UK writes:
Compositionality gives human language an endless capacity for generating new sentences as speakers combine and recombine sets of words into their subject, verb and object roles. For instance, with just 25 different words for each role, it is already possible to generate over 15,000 distinct sentences.1Pagel, M. Q&A: What is human language, when did it evolve and why should we care?. BMC Biol 15, 64 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12915-017-0405-3
Language is what allows us to communicate. Language enables us to express ideas, thoughts and feelings, and to do so with other people.
And understanding one another’s language is the foundation upon which we build social bonds–relationships, communities, societies, and nations. Misunderstanding or not understanding at all one another’s language is what often tears at the fabric of those bonds.
More than half of the global population speaks more than one language. That means language also enables the expression of ideas, thoughts and feelings across cultures and societies.
Language allows us to not only understand and communicate our culture, but to preserve culture.
Miscommunication: It Must Be A Language Thing
And sometimes it confounds culture.
Fernanda and I were born into different cultures, in different countries, and at different points in time (we have a few years between us). Despite our mutual commitment to learning how to be better communicators, I can’t tell you how many times we use the same words with one another only to find that we are not saying the same thing.
How can the same words, used in the same context, be defined completely differently by two people?
“That’s not what I said,” either one of us has replied to the other on more than a few occasions.
“That’s not what I meant,” another popular refrain.
And then my favorite (sarcasm strongly intended), “It must be a language thing.”
That’s what we say when we effectively throw our hands up at our inability to understand one another. When we choose to cede any hope of connecting on the argument at hand to the differences in our first languages (Spanish and English, in our case).
Admittedly, it is us giving up. But we’re working on it.
(The Right) Language Creates Safety
We’re working on it, and have to, because as anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows (romantic, plutonic, professional, or otherwise), the safety we seek in our relationships is nearly always determined by our ability to communicate effectively. And more so by the results of that communication.
Safety is at the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, second only to biological and physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, etc. And safety does not only include protection from natural elements, security, order, and law, but also a freedom from fear.
Fear cripples relationships.
In a romantic relationship, that fear could be about whether the relationship has what it takes to survive. Fear that maybe we are not with the right partner. Fear that our partner will not fully accept who we are.
In a friendship, that fear could be whether we are able to fully trust in the other person. Fear that when times are tough the other person will still stand by us.
In a professional relationship, that fear could be whether our boss values our contribution. Fear that we will be able to keep our job when the company is looking at who to downsize.
In the wake of this pandemic, that fear has manifested itself in many of us questioning whether we are in the right profession. And in the throes of the highest inflation in nearly a half-century, that fear could be whether we will be able to continue providing for our families.
The language we use and the language we understand in these situations has the power to create for us either safety or fear. And the difference between those two states is not insignificant.
Whether we feel safety or fear will determine what we think. What we think will determine how we communicate those thoughts. The words we use will determine how we act. And our actions will determine what our future looks like–and possibly the future of someone else.
And they can do so in a matter of seconds.
(The Right) Language Can Save A Life
My brother was a New York City police detective for twenty years. When he started out the department was introducing the work of the late George Thompson, creator of Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, into the academy curriculum for new recruits.
Thompson’s training was designed to help not only police officers, but anyone, de-escalate confrontational situations that otherwise create stress. It is stress that will impede our ability to listen and communicate effectively.
How I could have used some of those skills during my time in Kazakhstan, no more so than standing in front of the drunk who wanted to kick my ass, and the machine-gun-wielding military police.
Well, I was fascinated by my brother’s stories of chasing people down and conducting arrests, interviewing murder suspects and counseling families. One of his stories involved responding to a domestic dispute where he was faced with a woman who admitted to wanting to kill herself.
She was physically and verbally emotional about the stresses in her marriage, her job and her financial problems, and presented a dangerous desperation to the police officers in her living room. Dangerous, because the language the officers used with her next had the power to determine her fate.
Crisis counselors are taught perhaps better than anyone the immense force and impact language can have on an individual in crisis. How the right choice of words can rescue an individual from despair and save their life.
And how the wrong choice of words can push an individual further into their despair, or worse, cost them their life.
For example, while many of us may have felt comfortable responding to the woman’s despair with, “I understand what you are going through” in an effort to demonstrate compassion and connect with her, that would have been at the top of the list of what not to say.
Why? Because when we say, “I understand what you are going through” we are taking the focus off of the individual with whom we are speaking and placing that focus on ourselves. The conversation is no longer about them, but rather about us.
How can a small change in word choice create an outsized change in outcome?
Saying something like “What you are saying is entirely understandable, you’re allowed to feel that way” gives the individual permission to feel what they are feeling, and communicates to them that you are interested in them rather than focused on yourself.
And that small change in language from, “I understand what you are going through” to “What you are going through is understandable” can be the difference between their life and death.
What is so incredibly exciting about this is that we can learn how to do it. We can learn how to communicate better, how to use our language more skillfully, and as a result save people’s lives.
The Tower of Babel Confuses Language Forever
History may have been far kinder to humanity had the events at the Tower of Babel never occurred. And I may have fared far better in Kazakhstan.
The Book of Genesis, 11:1-9, tells the story of how the human race was speaking a single language when it built a tower up to the sky. It was as this point, as the story goes, that Yahweh was bored and wanted to have some fun with us. He confounded their speech so that humanity could no longer understand itself and scattered it across the globe–giving birth to different languages and cultures.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words…And they said to one another, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens…The LORD came down to see the city and the tower…and said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth.The Book of Genesis, 11:1-9
The Old Testament is just filled with stories of hope and compassion, right? Let’s now fast forward a few thousand years to a shady bar in Kazakhstan. The aftermath of the Tower of Babel is about to play games with me.
My Language Is Always On Display
I had been in Kazakhstan for a little over six months. After three months of intensive language study, and then three months of being on my own, I felt a sense of bravado that allowed me to be unintimidated when having conversations with strangers. It didn’t matter to me that my language skills were at best at a beginner level.
One night two of my friends and I visited a bar for the first time together. They had heard of the place and wanted to check it out with their American friend. Their English was near flawless, and as they wanted to practice it our conversation was 100% in English.
Whenever I opened my mouth to speak, whether in Russian or in English, nearly every head turned. Either I was speaking a foreign language (English) to the people who lived there, or I was attempting to speak Russian (usually poorly) and with a heavy and obvious accent.
Therefore, I was always careful to keep my voice down when speaking English outside of my apartment. Kazakhstan was a former Soviet republic, and just a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union Americans were still quite a novelty. I didn’t want to attract attention.
But I was one of less than ten volunteers in my city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, and with perhaps another handful of British expats, represented the sum of western individuals in a Soviet sphere still finding itself. Kazakh may have been the official language, but after nearly seven decades of Soviet rule Russian was the un-official official language.
Baltika #9, A Drunk & A Banana Walk Into A Bar
Immediately inside the bar—a small building in an open field off the one road that led to and from it—stood a uniformed military man, his rifle firmly in his hands. I couldn’t tell if he was security or in the role of bouncer. He didn’t speak, or smile, or acknowledge us at all. He simply stood surveying the room that my friends had called a bar.
We found a four-top table and sat down. My friends sat on either side of me, leaving the chair directly in front of me open. We quietly discussed what we were going to drink, and one of my friends stood up to buy our beers.
When he returned, we began speaking in English. The room was full of people, and wasn’t very large, so it was sufficiently loud enough for me to feel comfortable speaking in English believing our conversation wouldn’t draw much attention.
I hadn’t made it halfway through my beer—a Baltika #9, a European-style lager brewed in St. Petersburg, Russia—before our conversation attracted the attention of someone.
The man clumsily rose from his chair after several turns of the head in our direction, and then stumbled slowly towards us. He fell hard into the empty chair in front of me, his vodka jumping out of the glass as it hit the table top, and the banana he had in the other hand smashing on the table as he supported his inebriated weight with his hands.
It was the first and only time I ever saw a banana in a bar, in any of the several countries I have enjoyed a drink. [If you have ever seen a banana in a bar, please tell me in the comments. Until then, I am going to continue thinking I am the only person in the world to have this honor.]
His speech was badly slurred, so my friends attempted to translate. He wanted to know where I was from, what I was doing in Kazakhstan, if I liked the country and the people, and if I worked for the CIA (a common misperception, as no one could understand why an American would volunteer to spend any amount of time working for free in their country—a confusion I shared by the time I left the country for good).
Ya ne ponimayu (Russian for “I Don’t Understand”)
I was polite and patient for about five minutes, and then, as I would have been in any country, I became impatient with his nonsensical speech and uninvited intrusion. I tried to say in Russian that we wanted to be alone, that it was a pleasure to have met him, and that he should be going back to his table. But either my Russian, his inebriation, or a combination of both failed to allow that to land with him.
He said multiple times in response to my Russian,Ya ne ponimayu. That means I don’t understand.
I asked my friends if I was translating my words correctly, but they had been silent for the entire exchange, heads down and avoiding making eye contact with him. The looked at me only to say in English, “he’s drunk.”
That much I was able to figure out all on my own.
The man was likely twice my weight, had a few inches on my height, and was disheveled in the face—scruff beard, messy hair that was a few weeks late for a haircut. Perhaps my friends, who were about my size, were a bit intimidated by him. I didn’t stop to ask them (we’ll come back to the aftermath of this event in a minute).
I repeated several more times that I wanted to be alone with my friends.
Ya ne ponimayu, he responded.
At this point, I became the obnoxious American who had no fears. The New Yorker who had no patience for anything I didn’t care to entertain.
Get Out Of Here! I said in Russian between gritted teeth. Idi syuda!
I was eaning forward at the table and staring directly into his eyes, using the most menacing voice I could muster.
Ya ne ponimayu, he responded.
I repeated my Get out of here!, through the same gritted teeth, still leaning forward, still making eye contact.
Ya ne ponimayu, he responded.
Poe’s The Raven was finding a small cozy corner in my brain to recite itself.
And My Train Finally Goes Off The Rails
“This guy is a fucking idiot, isn’t he,” I said in English to my friends. And then one more Get out of here! in Russian for good measure.
Well, that he understood. There is likely no one on the planet who doesn’t recognize the word “fuck” or any of its derivatives. And “idiot” in Russian sounds like, well, exactly the same in English.
So “fucking idiot” landed directly on his runway. He raised up his left arm and cocked it back.
There was perhaps a little more than twelve inches separating us. As his arm came forward I could see his hand coming for my face.
Let me pause here and explain something.
This man was so incredibly drunk that he lacked any and all speed of movement. I could have counted at least a few Mississippis between each of his movements, so I had ample time to react.
And because of that, I was able to clearly see that he wasn’t about to hit me. Instead, he left hand was in flight to hurl his banana at me.
You read that right. This man was in the process of throwing his banana at me. The banana he thought to bring to the bar and eat while shooting his vodka.
I felt like Neo from the Matrix as I leaned left to avoid the banana—successfully. It passed over my right shoulder and landed on the floor. At the same time, my Agent Smith stood up so that he was now looking down at me and began shouting slurred words at me.
I stood up anticipating the need to use my arms and legs for something
At this point the military man with hi rifle slowly came over and meekly spoke to the man. He allowed him to gesticulate wildly before the drunk voluntarily began moving back towards his seat. At the same time, my friends and I were all on our feet and making our way to the exit (having said to one another that it was time to leave).
Communication Breakdown, It’s Always The Same
We made it outside without further incident, and quickly made our way to the road in order to hail down a taxi (in Kazakhstan, every vehicle is a potential taxi; simply negotiate the fair and jump in, trusting that the driver is not going to take you someplace nefarious to beat you and rob you, or worse).
Inside the taxi I questioned my friends on why they hadn’t said anything at all, and allowed what had just happened to happen. They responded with, “Why were you telling him to come here? We thought you wanted to hit him or something.”
“I was telling him to get out of here,” I corrected them. “I must have said idi syuda at least three or four times.”
“I know,” one of them said. “Why were you taunting him like that? Did you want to fight him?”
Adding to the frustration and anger I was feeling, I now was utterly confused.
“How is telling a drunk idiot to get out of here taunting him?” I asked.
“Idi syuda means come here,” my friend said. “What I think you wanted to say was ot syuda. Without the “ot” you are telling him to come to you, not go from you.”
“Wait, so I was telling him to get over here when I thought I was saying to get out here?”
“Yup, you were telling him to get over here.”
I can’t tell you how many more stories involving my using the wrong words got me into similar situations throughout the two years I lived there. It is a miracle, really, that I wasn’t deported or lost some teeth.
And over a preposition, no less.
Ya ne ponimayu.
The Limits Of My Language Mean The Limits Of My World
Language makes us who and what we are. The kind of language we use (or not use, more often)–our words, our tone when delivering those words–is specific to us, and therefore defines our worldview and how we are perceived in the world by others.
It is why we feel more at home with someone who speaks our own language. Why we feel unsafe when we are forced to exist outside our own language. And why we feel safe when existing within our own language.
If you have ever been in a foreign country where you didn’t speak the native language, and then found someone who spoke your language, you know the feeling.
If you have ever met someone for the first time and found you both hit it off immediately, seemed to understand one another from the jump without having to exert the same effort you do with others, you know the feeling.
If you have ever worked with colleagues—subordinates, peers, supervisors—with whom you did great work together, seemed aligned without effort or explanation on the objectives, you know the feeling.
If you have ever had your kids finally do something you’ve been trying to teach them for days, weeks, months or more, seemingly with futility, you know the feeling.
You know the feeling of being safe within your own language. We feel safe when we are with people–and existing in a world–where we are speaking the same language. Sometimes literally (English, Spanish), sometimes socially or culturally or academically.
The more we learn to push our language skills further, use them more skillfully, tactfully, the greater safety we create.
And if safety is one of our basic human needs, should we not strive to increase its chances by continually looking for ways to improve our language abilities? It really is one of those things you never get too old to learn to do better.
When our ability to communicate improves, the entire trajectory of our life improves along with it. And just maybe the trajectory of the life of someone else.
Maybe even saving it.
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