I find languages fascinating. Why is it that some languages have big fat dictionaries and some have thin? Why do some people need more words than others?
A woman I knew who worked for an international charity learned after one year in language school that she was being assigned work in a different country. Most people would have groaned and been upset with time wasted. She was relieved.
“That language has no polite words!” she said, exasperated. “There is no please, no thank you, no sorry, no kind way to express sympathy. I will be glad to move on.”
In the next language she studied greetings took ten minutes. “And how is your father-in-law? Are your she goats pregnant? Is your second nephew well? And your third nephew, is he well?” Since she is a people person she was much happier and didn’t find these rituals cumbersome at all.
I stayed with my daughter while she was living on a tiny Caribbean island. I never got used to the accepted phone etiquette there.
“What you want?”
“Oh, um, hello. I hate to bother you, but is Tina there please?”
“Tina not here.”
The first time I used the phone I thought Tina’s father was an angry man. Then I discovered nearly all the people born on the island spoke the same way, even in the marketplace. They had no problem with it. They wondered what was wrong with me.
My husband spent some time in the deep south of the United States as a guest lecturer. “Not only do they talk slowly, they act like they’ve got all day. They’ll tell you story after story and offer more drinks until you can’t hold it anymore, then they will finally say what they intended to when they offered you a seat,” he told me when he got home. “Great folks, but how do they ever get anything done?”
“What did they want to tell you?” I asked.
“That I am too blunt with the students and I need to be more sensitive.”
I laughed. My parents both spoke English but they came from cultures with different communication styles. In my father’s hometown no one broached the subject they came to talk about until the second pot of coffee was on the stove or until a hand was on the door knob on the way out. My mother’s ethnic background required a person to make their point quickly and clearly so a person could get on with their work – and there was always work. Dad thought Mom’s family was shockingly blunt. Mom thought Dad’s family was frustratingly long-winded. (I take after my Dad, but I can switch and be ruthlessly direct when under pressure.)
Mom, bless her heart, set herself to the task of learning “tact.” It was not a skill that came naturally, especially since she didn’t understand why some people took offense so easily. “She asked me if I liked her new hat and I said it looked silly on the side of her head like that. It made her head look crooked. I straightened it for her. Well, she asked me. Did she want me to lie? She didn’t have to go off in a huff!”
Mom meant well.
There are two sides to communication: what was intended and what was perceived. If only they were the same.
I’ve run into people who really have to work at understanding that other people perceive differently. Whenever I hear them start with “I don’t have time to say this nicely so I’m just going to say it,” I know it’s time to raise the shields. Incoming! Sometimes “I don’t have time to say this nicely” means “I don’t know how to say this nicely,” and sometimes it means “I can’t be bothered with going to the effort of caring about your feelings.”
They may have meant well. Or they may not. The message could have been a valuable one, but it was lost in translation either way.
Then there are people who enjoy getting a rise out of folks. Their words are intended to be like pokes, or even like the rash thrust of a sword. They are meant to provoke an angry reaction, because to them, an angry reaction is better than no reaction at all.
Then there are those who go on and on and never notice polite smiles starting to droop or eyes furtively checking watches. The message is as lost as a misfiled book in a four story library. (Sorry about that.)
Words seasoned with grace have the hearer in mind. Speaking with grace means honouring the hearer, taking the time to consider how they perceive the message and bringing healing to a heart. It’s about love. Grace usually is.
Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person. (Colossians 4:6 NASB)
There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword,
But the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18)
A gentle answer turns away wrath,
But a harsh word stirs up anger.
The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable,
But the mouth of fools spouts folly. (Proverbs 15:1,2)