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Pardon, can you repeat that?

| Wednesday, April 25, 2018

When your communication skills are limited, you become a much better communicator.

In my context, limited communication skills means living in a foreign-speaking country. Side effects of this condition include diminished ability to comprehend someone unless watching his or her mouth move and frequent demanding of a slower speaking rate.

I’ve been abroad in Angers, France since February, and while my French is good, it certainly isn’t flawless. And that can be scary. I’ve had my fair share of mistakes, as have my friends. But through my stumbles, I’ve learned a few new ways to improve my communication that can be universally applied. Let’s take a story as an example.

I’m in a burger restaurant with another American and two French students. The waiter comes up to take our orders. When he gets to me, I tell him what I want, and then he asks me something in fast French that I don’t catch. Using context clues, I assume he asks me how I want it cooked, so I respond with what I think means “well done.” It turns out I told him “well cooked,” as in demanding him to “cook it well.”

The waiter and the French students start laughing. I shrug my shoulders, grin and throw up my hands in confusion and feigned despair. “Classic. What the heck did I say this time?” The waiter leaves and my French friends explain my blunder. Then halfway through the meal, he comes back to jokingly ask me if my burger was cooked to my standards.

We laughed. I rouged. And in my folly, we passed an amiable moment together.

I wasn’t too terribly embarrassed by my mistake, and the waiter wasn’t angered by it. In fact, due to my fumble, I shared more smiles and laughter with the waiter and my friends than I otherwise might have.

Now how does this story, in which I fail in communication, teach you to be a better communicator? On y va. Here are three simple rules I’ve come to follow in Angers. I think if the whole world followed these communication principles, we all might get along just a bit better.

  1. Use body language

I threw up my hands, shrugged my shoulders and gave a cheeky grin to the waiter. That let him know I realized I made a mistake but I had no idea what it was. Motioning, using hand signals and expressing emotions through noises greatly helps communication. Forget how to say the words for rising and falling? Just lift your hand up and down. At the bar and want to warn your friend that guy next to her is about to spill his drink? Throw her the hand sign that means “drunk person over there.” Can’t remember how to say, “I’m alright?” Just say “Bof.” Body language can be a huge help.

  1. Don’t be ashamed

After my response prompted laughter, I too simply laughed. You must accept your lack of knowledge and completely own it. It’s all a part of the education. If I were afraid of making mistakes every time I spoke, I would never speak. I frequently ask the French to repeat themselves or explain in simpler language. Asking for clarification gets you to the truth faster.

  1. Be less judgmental

The waiter didn’t judge me, nor did the French students. They understood my language barrier, and thus had compassion for me. Wouldn’t it be nice if we held this same level of compassion for those that speak our own language? So often we misinterpret others’ intentions through texts, emails or in-person communication, resulting in a misjudgment of their character. But if you speak with someone from a different country, you are typically less judgmental, understanding their habits might be due to a cultural difference. Of course, we must not lose all criticism, for that would be dangerous. But a little less judging and more compassion can go a long way in communication.

Did that all make sense, or do I need to clarify? Don’t hesitate to ask.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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