On building trust in communicating across cultural and linguistic boundaries

Through spending two weeks in Kolkata, I have had the opportunity to interact with a beautiful, diverse, and deep culture.  In addition to spending time practicing and studying on my own, I have spent many of my days roaming the city and interacting with the citizens of many layers of society here: Classical musicians, traders, porters, bank tellers, martial artists, waiters, bus conductors, tourist liaisons; the list goes on.

In all of my experiences here, I have continually noticed that perhaps one of the most common threads throughout all of this is simply my lack of ability to speak this city’s native tongue, Bengali.

While this may appear immediately jarring, I have found that it is quite possible to get through most day-to-day interactions without much difficulty.  Sure, once the topic of conversation turns to politics I’m quickly out of the loop, but as far as getting around the city goes, I’ve found that it’s possible to regularly come to a place of basic human understanding, and it has fed many moments of reflection on the ongoing, amazing ability of humans to get along on a most basic level.

Bengal’s history with the English language goes back quite some time, at least as far back as 1690, when the British East India Company first set up an outpost in the city.  Furthermore, many English words have been adopted for common use, albeit with an ever-present Bengali accent (see: toot-paste).

Rewinding two years: the last time I was here I was fairly thrown off by Bengali styles of communication.  I felt that conversations appeared to be a bit circular (and that is true, to a certain extent), but from a more developed vantage point, however, I can see there are deeper levels, and the story fractures out in a few directions.

One level is that Bengalis tend to have bursts of interaction, which are then punctuated with a pause, and in that pause there is a look, directly in the eyes, of understanding.  That look is very important, and may even be required in order to move further into subsequent thoughts.  (It should be noted that it is equally important for the look to be met eye-to-eye.  Both persons in the interaction have a responsibility.)  Each phase must be absorbed in order to be developed upon, and these moments provide multiple opportunities: trust building, certainly, and also room for reflection and thoughtful elaboration.

From the point of this look, it maybe necessary to repeat that last bit of conversation, but most likely the conversation will be allowed to rest, after which the idea may be elaborated upon, almost as if the conversation is being struck up for the first time again, but this time being pushed further, possibly with another question. 

An American conversation in a restaurant might look like this:

            Customer: What is this dish?

            Waiter: That is mixed vegetables with a spicy sauce.

            C: Great.  Is that the best one?

            W: Yes it’s great.

            C: So, I should get it?

            W: Definitely.

            C: OK, we’ll take one.

Whereas the Bengali style might look more like this:

            Customer: What is this dish?

            Waiter: That is mixed vegetables with a spicy sauce.

            C: Oh…

            [Meeting eye contact.  Head nod.  Pause]

            C: Hm…

            W: [Another nod.]

            C: It’s good?

            W: [Nod.]

            C: [Look at the menu again.]

            W: This one is good.  Or you can take this other one if you like.

            C: Hm, I see.

            [Meet eye contact again.  Pause.]

            C: But this one is very good?

            W: Yes, very good.

            C: So we should take it?

            W: Yes, as you like.

            C: Good, let us have it.

In this interaction the pauses are very important, especially in the case of communicating across the cultural and linguistic boundary, the reasons are twofold. 

First, there is a distinct possibility that the waiter is having just as hard a time as me in communicating on this simple topic, so there should be some consideration given to the time he needs to adjust (recalling English vocabulary, assessing myfamiliarity with his culture, trying to do his best as a waiter at this restaurant, and being sensitive to my wants and needs as a customer).  We must take into consideration these factors and give the waiter the benefit of the doubt that he has all of these noble considerations in mind.  To discount any of these would be to jump to the assumption this he is of less than equal standing, and may potentially amount to an attitude of cultural arrogance.

Second, the pauses allow for all ideas to be communicated the simplest manner, removing the possibility of heightened stress response on the side of either party and potentially resulting in confusion and a less than desirable outcome. 

When communicating in English with Bengalis of less-than-perfect English capabilities, the most important thing is to always keep all communications as simple as possible, without the addition of any flourishes.  “Do you think this is the best Bengali dish on the menu?”  Can easily be reduced to, “This one is best?”  With much less chance of confusion.  Just the same, when getting on a bus, simply asking “Shyambazaar?” will get one on the bus speedily, as opposed to precisely but belaboredly asking, “Does this bus go to Shyambazaar?”  We cannot assume that the full sentence will be understood.  We must put ourselves in the shoes of the other, and remember that the bus conductor knows the word Shyambazaar (or shaam-ba-yaa as they say), but probably doesn’t know the words, “Does this bus go to.” 

This applies in any place in the world equally.  If one of my Haitian neighbors gets on a bus in Brooklyn and says “Borough Hall,” they have a good chance of getting on the right bus, only with the slight perception of the conductor that the rider had an accent.  If, however, on the other hand, that same person were to ask a long sentence with “Borough Hall” perhaps somewhere in the middle of it, a) the bus driver may not hear it at all, immediately being overwhelmed by the fact that this person is speaking some other language, or b), he/she may hear Borough Hall, but be slow to respond due to any number of a whole slew of psychological reactions upon hearing this foreign language, among the most negative possibilities being fear, anxiety, irritation, anger, and impatience.  You get my point. 

To aid in navigation of these potential unknowns, pauses allow for absorption of the ongoing conversation, and allow a rapport to be developed that far exceeds the abilities of language alone.  There is no end to the possibilities stemming from direct eye-contact.  Connection from one point of understanding to the other.  These are the moments of potential for camaraderie that is of a deeper, heart-centered type.  These are the moments that allow for compassion, kinship, and even humor to enter.

In a time of consistent distractions (we’ve heard this before, right?) from computers, phones, machinery, and broken conversation, it can become all too easy to develop a muscle memory of writing off the small, in-between moments in human interaction.  Let us try to accept those moments and not reach for the screen the second they offer themselves to us.  We never know on which continent this will prove useful.