Around 5 weeks ago, I was wheeling an oversized piece of luggage past the doors of our hotel in Saalbach (Austria), in order to sit and wait for the shuttle that would take us to Salzburg to begin our journey home. I caught the sound of German being spoken behind me, and soon realised – in that instinctive way that has nothing to do with the actual words that are spoken – that these words were being addressed to me.
I turned to see a middle-aged couple seated at a table just beside the door. The man had been talking to me, and I apologetically mumbled that I did not speak German. Since the only pertinent phrase I knew was the arrogant English-speakers question “Sprecken Sie Englisch”/”Do you speak English?”, I wasn’t able to coherently say “I’m sorry, I speak only English and do not speak German”. Rather I resorted to a slightly saddened facial expression, a shake of the head, and tapping my chest as I said “Englisch”.
“Ah!” the man raised his right hand in a gesture of understanding. I thought that would be the end of it, but just as I turned to sit down, I saw from his look of concentration that he was keen to continue the ‘conversation’. He turned to the woman beside him, in an apparent effort to see if she knew the appropriate English words. Unfortunately, she did not.
He pointed at the large bag I had placed beside me, and shrugged his shoulders. I guessed he wanted to know what on earth was in such a large piece of luggage! “Ah”, I said, “a bicycle”. Realising that the word “bicycle” didn’t carry across to German, I looked around and spotted a built-up bike. I pointed, and he smiled knowingly. And there we were – having a conversation.
Fifteen minutes later, and we had covered some serious ground. We each knew our respective homes (I from Australia, and he and the lady from Dresden in Germany). I learnt how long it took to drive from Dresden to Saalbach, and they learnt how we had travelled to Austria via Canada, England and France, and that it was a 30 hour flight back home to Australia. I explained that in Australia I was studying, and that Michael sold mountain bikes in a shop. I discovered that they felt they were too old to ride mountain bikes, but instead were going for gentle walks through the Austrian countryside during their week-long holiday. I even managed to compliment the lady on how well she looked for her age! I couldn’t imagine actually saying that to someone I’d just met, but somehow it didn’t seem so uncomfortable and weird when done through gestures!
Our conversation only ended because our shuttle arrived to whisk us away to Salzburg. As we parted, he cheerly said “Goodbye!” and he smiled excitedly and laughed when I replied “Auf wiedersen!”
While it certainly took a lot longer to cover a few aspects of our lives through signs, gestures and perseverance, it was still such a rewarding conversation. I can only assume that we understood each other – for all I know, we could well have been talking about completely different things! But it didn’t feel like it; it felt like we had found a way to communicate despite the language barrier. It was a really beautiful experience.
I’ve heard many statistics that argue that the vast majority of communication is non-verbal (up to 93%!), and always wondered how even the best researchers could arrive at such a statistic. So it was incredible to see this at work in such a clear way. We didn’t need words to communicate the basic facts about our lives. We didn’t need words to show that we were interested in a conversation with one another. In fact, it was the absence of words that forced us to become aware of the non-verbal ways in which people communicate. Much like a young child who has yet to master the art of language, we were forced to utilise gestures, sounds, expressions and objects around us to show our meaning.
As enlightening as this experience was, it’s unlikely to be an everyday occurrence (no overseas holidays to lovely destinations like Austria in the pipeline!). However what is an everyday occurrence is miscommunication and misunderstanding driven by the fact that our non-verbal communication speaks so much louder than our words. Sadly, I can think of many relationships around me that seriously suffer because of this kind of breakdown. The listener, rightly or wrongly, feels that the non-verbal communication comes from a place of truth, while words are simply superimposed over the top and don’t carry the speakers true meaning. The speaker often doesn’t even realise the power of their non-verbal communication, which can lead to significant strife in relationships of all kinds.
So combining this experience with everyday life has made me think – if my words were muted, what would the people around me think right now? What would they feel? What am I communicating, that drowns out my words anyway? What must people think when my gestures, expressions and actions don’t quite line up with my words?
It’s a big thought and it’s not always easy to keep on top of your non-verbal communication, but I figure there’s no harm in trying!