I live in a “cross-cultural” relationship: we both were born outside of Canada, we met here and as lingua franca we speak English at home although none of us is a native English-speaker. You could call it an intercultural marriage or a multilingual marriage — doesn’t matter. The point is that you need to express your most intimate feelings and thoughts in a second (third, fourth) langauge. Most of the time we manage it quite well.
We both have some background in the main topic of this blog — cross-cultural communication (CCC). In a way, we could even say that we got together thanks to this specific topic: she was giving a lecture as a doctor for some health care providers and because it was related to issues dealing with patients from a different cultural background… somehow I ended up being a “guest speaker” in the middle of her lecture. Then we started to work together on a new, more focused seminar — and the rest is history.
Even if we don’t communicate perfectly all the time, we have the ability and the resources to review our mistakes, to learn from them and, eventually, share our experiences. Yes, we do very well in this CCC department. Until…
… well, until something unexpected happens. As a breast cancer diagnosis. Suddenly our life and especially her life is overwhelmed by the elementary human instinct: the fear of death. No matter how good the survival chances are, you have to live with this sinister shadow above you. The usual daily chit-chat is replaced with dialogues dictated by fear, anxiety, helplessness, frustration, hope and scare. The ultimate test for your cross-cultural communication skills: you need to express your most basic instincts and thoughts that are difficult to verbalize even in your mother tongue no matter how well you can handle it. And now you have to do it in a foreign language. Will my caring sentence or phrase that was meant to be as tender and supportive as it is possible “survive” the double translation? From my mother tongue to English and then from English into her mother tongue?
Why, aren’t you thinking in English when you speak English, you may ask. Most of the time we do. (Although we have developed a kind of our own pidgin with words borrowed both from her and my mother tongue, especially for food, cooking techniques and meals not known around here — and for cursing.) However, when the emotions go this high or, in other words, you have to dig this deep into your feelings… everybody tends to revert back to their mother tongue — at least when trying to find a name for that strange new fear or emotion.
Somehow not only the new learned culture and the second (nth) language comes off but also the “educated”, intellectual part of your brain stops working. We are back to the bare basic instincts: survival and fear of death, elementary anger toward the whole world (why I? why us? why she? why not anybody else?) – and the hope that everything will be OK at the end. I am learning to eloquently speak about hope in English. She tries to listen… Then I try again the next day. And again. I don’t really care about this whole cross-cultural thing theory anymore. I just want to be sure that the message, the main message, namely that I am here for her – gets through. Yet, they say that about 77% of the human communication is non-verbal.
Can I instill the hope and express the caring just like that… wordlessly?