From time to time I find myself interacting with people whose knowledge of English is shaky and who speak other languages far better. For example, over the past few days I have been dealing with a German person with broken English and a fondness for humor as well as a difficult time in understanding the mechanics of what I was showing him. I was pondering what sort of ways would be possible to explain things when dealing with people whose grasp of our common language is a bit shaky. Where people are conscientious it is easier to deal with people and to communicate with them, but I have found often in my life that things are difficult to communicate and that one has to adopt a variety of strategies to get one’s point across to others.
I remember when I was a teacher in a small school in Thailand, and one of the classes I taught was public speaking. The students in this class were very nervous about public speaking and they were especially nervous about impromptu speaking, which is admittedly something I greatly enjoy doing. One of the ways that I taught them how to do it was to model it myself, repeatedly, demonstrating that one could make do with the knowledge that one had in one’s head and that someone giving you a speech of that kind would want to make it a subject that one could talk about in a sensible fashion. Once they were aware that they had enough knowledge in their heads to talk about something (in English no less) in a sensible fashion and knew that they would be asked about a subject they had an interest and knowledge in, they were able to engage in the task.
When we tend to think about communications barriers between ourselves and other, our thought is generally that more communication and more accurate understanding is itself a good thing. The thought is that if other people understood what we were getting at or we understood what others were getting at, then life’s difficulties would be greatly resolved. This view appears to me to be particularly naive. There are indeed a great many cases where better understanding of where different parties were at would lead to greater understanding and agreement. But there are also cases where the understanding of what other want leads to fear and loathing and even more intense disagreement. We simply do not always want the same thing. And knowing that we do not want the same thing can lead to problems becoming hardened because more communication simply reveals that two parties are simply in conflict with each other.
This sort of conflict is not hard to recognize. If there are two people, where one party wants increased intimacy and the other wants less, increased knowledge of each other’s positions will not make their interactions any happier, as communication from both will be focused on areas likely to make the other more unhappy. If two parties both seek political power to make themselves feel safer at the expense of the other, increased openness and communication about their goals is likely to sharpen the conflict by showing what is at stake in any even election. If two parties both want the same land and to remove the presence of the other people from that disputed land, increased communication about their goals and wants and perspectives is likely to be met with increased hostility from the other side. Frequently in life, we want something that other people do not want. If there are occasions where we would be in harmony with others based on a more complete understanding, there are also many situations where it is only a lack of understanding between people that allows them to be at peace, because if they really understood what the other was about, it would be impossible to view them with anything other than undisguised and immense hostility.
And once this hostility exists, it is difficult for it to be overcome. Once we see people as enemies, everything that they do becomes viewed in an unfriendly light. Simple questions and comments that indicate that they notice us become imbued with the thought that someone is trying to stalk us, even where they might rather avoid us altogether. Our desire to make friends might be seen by others as spreading hostility against the person we are at enmity with. Any increased opportunities we have to serve or participate in a given group are viewed as being opportunities to target someone with whom we are at odds. In such an atmosphere, communication that is meant to calm irritations may simply be viewed as tactical and not representing any sort of genuine respect or concern for an estranged party. Offers made will be viewed as Greek gifts. Promises made will be viewed as lies. Efforts at communication are viewed as hostile and aggressive acts. Silence is taken as evidence of sullen plotting. Nothing makes anything better until that hostility can be dealt with and overcome, and that is by no means an easy process.