Communication is such a critical part of our lives. It has the power to make things happen or stop things from happening. In our daily lives, we often forget the power of communication - particularly its more subtle forms, such as non-verbal communication (gestures, facial expressions, body posture, etc).
As an interpreter focused on converting a message from one language to another, too often I get "lost in the words". Communication is so much more than words! But it seems that we are more focused on what is said rather than understanding the intended message. Many times we say something when we really mean something else and we expect the listener to "read between the lines". We often fail at communicating effectively because we don't pay enough attention to non-verbal gestures, tone, the emphasis on certain words, pitch used, volume, pace, eye contact or other important aspects of communication.
Communication is difficult because, even when people speak the same language, non-verbal communication is not given the importance it deserves. Imagine how much more challenging communication becomes for English language learners! Consider this:
Second-language speakers have great difficulty unlearning these aspects of language (tone, emphasis, pitch, volume, pace, etc.), and may even be unaware of such differences. This can result in communication problems even if they use the correct grammar and vocabulary.
When communicating with people from different languages and cultures, consider the following information on non-verbal features of communication provided by Ethnicity Online:
- Conversation structure - Speakers of other languages may build up to what is important, and may lose the interest of English speakers who are unaware of this difference.
- Emphasis - which is placed on a word to give it more importance within a sentence. Other languages may employ the use of repetition, extra words or a change in the pace or pitch of their speaking to convey their feelings or the relevance of something.
- Intonation - can turn a phrase into a question without the need to restructure the sentence. This can be very confusing to someone who has been taught English as a second language in a more formal manner.
- Listening - which is shown by eye contact, nodding or encouraging noises, can very easily be misunderstood by second-language speakers, who may employ silence, stillness and even looking away to demonstrate their attentiveness.
- Silence - which usually conveys unease, but may equally indicate that a second-language speaker is taking the topic of conversation very seriously.
- Turn-taking - where only one person at a time speaks, and interruptions are viewed as rude. In other languages, people may speak over each other to show that they are actively involved in the conversation.
- Volume - which is normally fairly low, with a noticeable increase used to gain attention and emphasize what is being said. It can also convey strong feelings, and so speakers of languages that are generally louder can come across as upset, threatening or rude.
Ethnicity Online also provides the following advice, when communicating with people from different cultures:
- Be aware of the reasons (many of which are listed above) why communication may fail, or not entirely succeed;
- Try to become more aware of your own automatic responses so that you can learn to keep them in check;
- Give the other person the benefit of the doubt and assume that their intentions are not unkind;
- Try to gauge other people's reactions to you and be prepared to adapt your approach.
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