Friday, September 01, 2006

Washroom break

We all know that you can be a native English speaker and still find communicating in English a very challenging task. There are so many different interpretations among people living in Britain, America, and Canada. But living in Sub-Saharan Africa, I find my communication skills much improved. I now have expanded my vocabulary and communication styles to accommodate a wide variety of people. For example, when I request the use of a public washroom, I start with…excuse me, can you tell me where the washroom is? If I receive a vacant stare, I try again…restroom? Bathroom? Toilet – toilet, just get me the toilet! Of course, never underestimate the usefulness of silent communication…maybe crouching movements? Although, I have to admit that may not apply to certain contexts. In Malawi for instance, women pee standing up in the street – with an unapologetic stare back if you happen to rudely glance in puzzlement at them. No big deal. It’s quite a talent really. It is quite common to pee in the streets in Africa but the women standing thing gets you everytime – I think it was generally agreed that is not quite common elsewhere. And NO, I will not be practicing that particular talent. But don’t get squeamish. There is nothing wrong with answering a very basic human need by watering the soil. Anyway – my tip – keep communication context specific.

Greet a Stranger

It is amazing how we often underestimate our affect on others. I am beginning to think that perhaps we have inherent humbleness or perhaps it is an unwillingness to falsely portray a presumptuous attitude. It is difficult to imagine that a casual greeting to a stranger will leave an indelible impression. I once received a handshake that was a tad too firm and vigorous and I was surprised at my immediate involuntary dislike of the person. For some reason, I was convinced thereafter that the person was insincere and shady. I bet if you were to track a person who received smiles from strangers all day for no apparent reason, this person would have a fairly pleasant disposition that lasted indefinitely. Who knows, it may be your boss who has received all this pleasantness from others and she or he comes in and decides to give you a long awaited promotion.

About 2 weeks ago, I ran into an acquaintance of mine. I approached gingerly because I was aware he had very recently lost his mother to breast cancer. I was without being aware of it, becoming more tense (as we often do when we erect walls to emotionally protect ourselves) because I suppose was preparing to comfort and hear something sad. So I asked him quietly and sympathetically…much like our society expects in times like this…how are you doing? He completely floored me with his response. He said, “I’m great, why wouldn’t I be? How are YOU?” I immediately grew more sympathetic because I was convinced he was experiencing shock and denial (much like our academic knowledge about dealing with death and grief tells us). I just sort of stared at him. Perhaps waiting for my role as comforter to be revealed when he inevitably breaks. He then said, almost cheerfully, “look Sophie, she was suffering, I don’t perceive death in the same way you do…so I accept her passing.” He then happily gave me a goodbye hug and sent me on my way with promises of getting together. Do you know how I felt as I walked away? Lighter. Happier. And absolutely looking forward to the next social obligation of getting together and chatting. I hope you don’t think I’m implying that you should be happy under any circumstances, including death of a loved one. We are human after all. But often, I interact with acquaintances who when in passing ask the obligatory, ‘how are you’? they answer one of a few ways. “I’m okay and you?”. OR they answer, “I’m there”. “I’m alive”. It is then upon us to probe if we so choose. But who in our fast paced world has time to ask...an acquaintance…why are you just meeting the ‘I’m alive’ requirement? Why not more? If it is not compromising anything by you giving a more positive reply such as ‘I’m great’, ‘I’m excellent’ why not do so? Selfish? Maybe…but the subsequent rounds of goodwill you will relay in exchange for telling an acquaintance as opposed to a close friend that you are ‘excellent’ may out weigh everything else. What often happens at a very subconscious level for me is I now realize is I start avoiding those that constantly answer “I’m there”, “I’m alive”. Happiness draws you. So next time you are walking home, put a little bounce in your step, paste a smile on your face, tell that friend you run into how excellent you feel (upgraded from feeling ‘okay’ or ‘fine’, not crappy – cuz if you feel horrible, I wouldnt compromise truth – you’d just end up getting an ulcer from bottled up feelings J) and give them a hug if it is appropriate to do so. You might have just sent that other person to walk away from you feeling for inexplicable reasons, lighter, happier, and willing to give their staff a raise just because.