I once lived in Tokyo. One day after I’d been there a while I went to a store looking for a light bulb. This was a small neighborhood shop that carried various household supplies, the type of mom and pop general store that was once common in the US too. The lady taking care of the store had trouble understanding what I wanted. This was not because I didn’t know the correct words, as I had learned enough Japanese to be sure of that. I didn’t think it was even my accent, though that was more likely, as I never had a heavy accent in Japanese. After repeating myself many times I came to realize that she just couldn’t imagine that someone who wasn’t Japanese could be speaking to her in Japanese. Why this was the case is a long story for another place, but it was common enough then to have made it into the “foreigner”‘s folklore.
The shopkeeper’s lack of understanding was due to the fact that she wasn’t trying to understand someone who her beliefs told her was inherently incomprehensible. I was a foreigner, so I had to be speaking a foreign language, and she didn’t know any foreign languages. QED.
On the other end of the spectrum is the general human tendency to assume that other people that appear the same as we do, who speak the same language, are generally the same as we are. They think the same things, they feel the same feelings, and it is therefore safe to assume that we can project our experiences onto them and know who they are. We think we understand them until they do something different and become suddenly unpredictable, foreign, strange.
Those of us that have come to feel ourselves different, you who have ever walked down the street humming Strange Days as your personal theme song, generally assume that everyone else is understood, but we are the unique “foreigner” who no one understands.
As is usually the case, truth is fluid and lies somewhere in the middle. We are all unique human beings, with unique experiences, unique personal libraries of experience that lead to unique languages, even if we all use the same name for them. If you ever doubt this watch two people speaking your native tongue, who come from countries, that have different languages. You will see them misunderstand different words meaning the same thing, or the same words meaning two different things.
Its not a mystery that we sometimes misunderstand, its more a wonder that we ever understand each other. We don’t have to be from different countries, or different classes, or different genders, we’re all human beings and that’s enough.
Communication is challenging, it requires good intention and the awareness that there is always a level of translation going on. If we are not paying attention, either because we think its impossible, or we assume its trivial, we are likely to miss things. Verbal communication is an art, to which some folks have figured out basic rules that enhance the likelihood of success, by never assuming that you know what the other person is thinking or feeling, without checking [eg. Nonviolent Communication, Rosenberg].
You might say, as many people do, that if everyone is different, and if many things can never be truly spoken, that I can never really understand another person. How many of us even understand ourselves? and we have know ourselves all our lives. But with good intention and practice we can learn to understand ourselves and we can learn to understand each other. Especially if we cooperate.
There are other levels we can learn to communicate on, feeling and intuition. We can choose to look for the true intention and feeling behind the words, just as you quickly learn to do in a country whose language you have just started learning. The words are only 10-20% of the communication anyway. When you begin to experience language as a series of sign posts pointing to the meaning and intention behind them you can even begin to “see” or “feel” the meaning directly. In ongoing relationships of all sorts you begin to develop a common, shared vocabulary of experiences and meanings, that allows a deeper, often simpler communication, and through that further understanding.
We live in the middle ground of imperfect understanding, of ourselves and others. We can choose to give up, we can get hung up on the words, or we can choose to move towards understanding. When we do this with ourselves, it yields personal growth, and carries us into our own spirit. We can do this with others as well and this also carries us into spirit. The paradox is that if we hold to the extremes we will never understand, even when we think we do, and miss understanding that is there when we believe it impossible. If, however, we assume we are starting with different languages we can choose to co-create a shared one that does give us understanding. We can learn to communicate beyond language in ways that let us even share experiences that we have not had ourselves.
I may never understand the exact nuances of your experience, but when we have the will to understand we can move far through that middle land, irrespective of language, or religion, or even gender. The understanding we find may not be the mental understanding that we put into words, but we can come to deeply know ourselves and each other. All it takes is our intention to find the other’s intention within their words. When we want to understand, then we can communicate, and this moves us towards understanding. This is ultimately a joyful place and a fascinating journey. I hope you never give up trying.