This story starts in late 2016. I had just moved to Venice, a sun-kissed oceanside neighborhood in LA for a new job. While in an UberPool, nervously waiting to arrive at new hire orientation, I serendipitously ran into a friendly but at the same time reserved girl in the car as one of the other passengers. After some small talk we ended up exchanging phone numbers; it was also her first day at college so we bonded over shared anxiety and eagerness to explore our new city. Our first date seemed different than my previous Tinder dates, it somehow felt effortless and fun. That’s weird because she is from Korea and had only been living in America for a few months, meaning that she was not proficient in English. Since I am Chinese American, we ended up having no languages in common. Are hopelessly doomed, and will be nothing more than a fling?
The rest of this blog will talk about the counterintuitively functional and loving relationship we had; it will also talk about the immense amount that I’ve learned about people and communication from this incredible experience. For the rest of the story, the girl in question will be referred to as “S”.
S not being able to speak English fluently was no problem, in fact, we both came to the conclusion that it largely helped our communication. You see, I normally speak very quickly, to the point of it being uncomforting. Think Jesse Eisenberg in basically every movie he’s in. With S, things are different. If I spoke English to her at the same pace that I normally spoke English, she’d obviously not be able to keep up; hence, for the first time in my life I found myself speaking real slow. Not only did speaking slower make things more romantic, it allowed for us to express way more. Facial emotions! Wild hand gestures! Nonsensical body movements! Think long boring text filled email conversations from the 90s transformed into quick paced snapchat/facebook-esque emoji conversations. We found ourselves having way more fun, I personally haven’t had this much fun with previous girls I’ve dated in the past, all of whom were native English speakers.
The paradox of culture is that language, the system most frequently used to describe culture, is by nature poorly adapted to this difficult task. It is too linear, not comprehensive enough, too slow, too limited, too constrained, too unnatural, too much of a product of its own evolution, and too artificial.
– Beyond Culture, Edward Hall
Lack of a shared language resulted in less friction between S and I, we were somehow more lighthearted together. Our communication, stripped of complex language, had more of a primal feel to it. For the readers more inclined towards theory: language, especially complex language, acts as an abstraction above our emotions and thoughts. Language serves a valuable purpose in that it lets us serialize, write down, save, and send dense information rich messages. But while language has its purposes, there are also many situations where it can be misused or where other forms of non-verbal communications are more appropriate. A sincere smile will always express more than “I am happy”, some emotions can’t be expressed with words without being distorted. Languages also vastly differ by culture; some words, and hence meanings, don’t exist in certain languages. S and I weren’t working together on a complex project, but we were just dating and falling in love. In previous relationships with native English speaking girls, language would often feel like a rigid structure that kept our emotions and feelings trapped leading to mutual anxiety and bickering.
I have a hypothesis that language is heavily overused and assumed to be the only means of communication in life, relationships, culture, and love. The experiences from above make me think that we should push ourselves to be more creative with our communications.
“93% of all daily communication is nonverbal” – Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, conducted several studies on nonverbal communication. He found that 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc). Subtracting the 7% for actual vocal content leaves one with the 93% statistic.
Thanks for reading! If you are interested in these topics: high/low context interactions, non-verbal communications, and culture, check out Edward Hall’s fascinating book that dives far deeper into the subject called Beyond Culture.
Until next time, Lucas