In late 2016. I moved to Venice Beach, a sun-kissed oceanside neighborhood in LA for a new job at Snapchat. While in an UberPool, anxiously waiting to arrive at new hire orientation, in came an attractive fashionable woman in her mid-twenties. She was reserved at first, but quickly opened up. It was her first day in college for an overseas exchange program so we bonded over shared anxiety and exchanged phone numbers. After a few days of texting, I asked her out and she said yes. My relationship with S was unlike anything I’d experienced previously because of the unique way we were forced to communicate. She was from Korea, had only just arrived in America, and was not a native English speaker. Being a 2nd generation Chinese, I was proficient in English and Chinese, leaving us zero overlap in langauge or culture.
S not being able to speak English fluently was no problem. Counterintuitively, we both agreed that lack of shared language helped our relationship. Before meeting S, I spoke quickly, to the point of it being unsettling and sometimes cryptic. Think Jesse Eisenberg in every movie he’s in. With S, things were different. If I spoke English to her as I normally did, she wouldn’t be able to keep up. For the first time ever, I had a forcing function on me to speak slowly and clearly. A higher bar for real communication.
Not only did speaking slower make things more romantic, it allowed for me to get my points and feelings across clearer. Two birds one stone. Since the two of us were speaking slower, extra bandwidth opened up via facial emotions, hand gestures, and body movements. Communication became more fun with S, there would be no debates, nit picks, or misunderstandings. Silly body movements and facial expressions made up for the bandwidth lost from a smaller vocabulary. Think long text filled misunderstanding-prone email conversations from the 90s transformed into quick paced snapchat/facebook-esque emoji convos paired with selfies. The communication’s still there, it’s just a different form.
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 me. We were more lighthearted and had a special expressive freedom together. Our communication, stripped of complex language, had more of a primal feel to it. 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. Commonly understood words and their utility also differ by culture. Some words and the meanings they represent, don’t exist in certain languages. S and I weren’t working together on a complex project, but we were just dating, exploring a new city, and having fun. On dates with native English speaking girls, language would sometimes feel like a rigid thing that kept our emotions and feelings trapped, leading to stifling misunderstandings.
Encode / decode failure means bad communication, no matter how high vocabulary the messages being transmitted are. I think that language is overused and overrated, and people in general have a lack of creativity going on when it comes to communication.
“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