Body Language — Lost in Translation

Photo Credit: Shell Daruwala via Compfight

“Just because we both speak in English doesn’t mean we understand one another.” This is one of my favorite business quotes. It’s been my experience, when two parties speak different languages — say Korean and English they take great pains to ensure that they actually understand one another. Of course this rule may not apply to our President, but most normal people do try harder when translation is required.

But that’s language you say. Lost in translation!

Of course, when two people speak the same language, it’s easy to assume that you actually understand the other person. In reality you may be talking of very different things. We seem to recognize this often enough when it’s men and women talking to one another. Who amongst us hasn’t flubbed the answer to the question “Does this make me look fat?” I’ve learned at great personal risk, that when my wife asks me “Do you want to change that shirt?” she’s not asking a question but recommending that I do.

Comedians for decades, nay centuries have worked this one to death. So you’d think given how much we’ve learned that words can mean more than one thing, we’d have gotten better at understanding one another.

But that’s men and women you say. Lost in translation!

As the old saying goes, identifying the problem is half the solution. So if we know words can mean different things (and can they boy) and men and women communicate differently (do they) we’d all be doing a much better job. And we are. BUT communication isn’t always verbal. There’s something called body language — yep, communicating without words.

And if you thought I was bad with words, I’m terrible with bodies!

Hold on. That’s not totally true. Having two daughters and one wife, has gotten me fluent with V-grade level body language. Rolled eyes, raised eyebrows — I’ve got that covered. In some instance, even crossed hands and stamped feet I understand. Though at times I may either misinterpret them or outright miss them. But anything subtler than this — I’m likely to miss. Till I got married I didn’t realize, how much variation can be there in an inhalation or exhalation. And what this simple act of breathing can communicate. A short exhalation can communicate anything from a dismissive shrug to something akin to a derisive snort. My family is practically a factory of visual memes. I’d love to boast that I understand body language better. But that would not be saying much. As with learning Spanish, I got pretty good the first weeks from atrocious to merely bad — but then hit a plateau.

But that’s just body language you say. Lost in translation!

When I first came to this country, little did I realize what a cultural minefield I’d walked on to. Around three months after I’d been in grad school, Marcel a fellow grad student from the Netherlands took me aside one day. I suspect he may have had a drink or two to fortify himself for this conversation.

“Sri, in this country we usually don’t touch other men when we talk.” He didn’t beat around the bush. And this was Berkeley in the early 80s.

“Okay. Why are you telling me this?” I said

“Well you usually reach out and touch folks when you are speaking to them. Especially with men.” And he demonstrated by reaching out and touching me on the elbow.

At this point its worth stepping back. Where I come from in India, little or no physical contact, certainly in public, is allowed between the sexes. Truer still within our sub-culture. However, you will see guys strolling down the street hand over shoulder or even arm-in-arm. Of course women are allowed physical contact with their girl friends — holding hands or arm-in-arm. In fact, I saw even in this country women are allowed contact in a way men just aren’t, at least outside of the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.

So when Marcel told me that I was (as the old AT&T ad exhorted me) reaching out and touching people, I could believe it. The next few weeks (maybe months) I walked around with my hands in my pocket. Particularly when I was talking to another man, so as to not reach out and touch them.

Unfortunately, this was the time that I’d begun watching American football. (Don’t get me started that this features neither feet nor a ball). I got really confused. If men weren’t allowed to touch one another, why could they pat each other’s backside on national television at that?

But that’s culture you say. Lost in translation!

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