What we have here is a failure to communicate

If you’ve ever experienced a breakdown in communication, you know the cause can often be traced to a number of factors, from distraction and inattention to emotions and misunderstandings.

But what about the times when someone just isn’t speaking your language? As in they don’t speak English?

Such was the case a while back when I had the interior of our house painted. Julian, my contractor, is our family's go-to guy, and one of the nicest people out there. Spanish happens to be his native language. Although he does speak English, his accent is heavy, even after living in the U.S. for several decades. I, on the other hand, speak a very broken Spanglish at best.

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Phone calls were the worst. I’d often hang up the phone, cross my fingers and hope for the best: Had he said work would begin the following day at 9:30 a.m. or 5:30 a.m?

Apparently, he said neither. It was about 11 a.m. when he arrived the next day. I learned quickly that time was relative for his crew. He whizzed through the house, barking orders in his native language to three of his workers, and headed for the front door.

“OK, Mees Bet. I will see ya laaater.”

With that, he was gone, leaving me to figure out how on earth I was going to communicate with my new guests. Because not one of them spoke a lick of English. Not. One.

In full disclosure, it took me a while to realize just how wide the language barrier was. I’d ask things like, “Would you like coffee?’ and they’d say, “Okay.”

I’d say, “How are you, today?” and they’d say, “Okay.”

I’d say, “What time are you going to lunch?” and they’d say, “Okay.” That’s when I realized something was askew.

And so it continued daily for the next six weeks (yes, six, count them, six weeks). I’m not sure anyone but Julian ever knew my name. They referred to people and places by their street address. My brother was Lincoln Avenue. Their favorite restaurant was Alexandria (Al-a-zan-DRIA) Road. Every now and then, a new worker would join them. They’d introduce me with smiles and, “Si,” and explain that I was the seester of Lincoln Avenue.

In an effort to better communicate, I found my own English becoming more primitive (and a little louder than normal): “Coffee good?” “You paint tomorrow?” Probably not my proudest moments.

Even words I assumed would translate—words like guacamole and jalapeno—weren’t as universal as I suspected. My gwack-a-mo-lee was their whaaac-a-molaaay.

One day, though, as if a gift from the language gods, I stumbled upon the bridge to our gap by uttering a single word: Tequila.

“Tah-KEE-la!! Si!!”

That’s right, we had a bingo. Common ground at 80 proof.

Tequila was our answer to everything, and our running joke of sorts. Now mind you, the joke could’ve been on me—I’d never have known, I can promise you that—but every time one of us became frustrated when conveying a thought, someone would invariably break the tension:

“Tah-KEE-la!”

“Ah! Tah-KEE-la!!” we’d respond, and we’d all laugh and laugh and laugh. It never got old. 

In the weeks that followed, we taught each other a few words here and there. They liked leche and azucar in their coffee, for example. Their genuine smiles and positive attitudes made them a joy to be around, and I looked forward to our time together.

While I’d learned just enough Spanish to be dangerous, I felt pretty confident about my command of the English language, and a brief moment of weakness, I thought about offering to teach them English. Whether for good or ill, the though dissipated without further action on my part.

A week or so before they finished, one of them came into my office with his cell phone in hand to show me an app he’d downloaded: a Spanish/English translator. Part of me wondered why we hadn’t thought of that weeks ago.

Deep down, I knew no electronic translator could bridge language and relational barriers the way human interaction can.

All this is to say that the next time you experience a failure in communication, remember this: If you’re patient enough, creative enough and determined enough, you’ll find a way through. And if you don’t, there’s always tequila.

Until next time,

Beth

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