After a day in Cambodia, my American travel companions and I found ourselves modifying our language when speaking to those with limited English skills. We’d traveled abroad enough to know to speak slowly, enunciate every syllable, avoid contractions, use simple words and basic sentence structure. But in our quest for clear communication, we soon matched the syntax of the local shopkeepers we encountered.
This meant we eliminated most articles of speech (the, a, an) and even some verbs. So when talking to a local with limited English, instead of “We will go with Tov to the restaurant” we’d say, “We go with Tov to restaurant.” And nearly all communication was accompanied by simple charade-like gestures illustrating, as best we could, the concept we were wanting to communicate. When requesting a foot massage at a downtown establishment, we’d say, “One-hour (holding up one finger) foot massage (pointing to one’s feet). How much?” The practitioner would respond nodding, often writing the amount on paper or a calculator.
We got so used to this that without thinking we began talking to other of our group members this way. One day I said to a travel companion, “Jana want lunch?” She looked at me bewildered, “You know I speak English, right?” We both laughed hard. I’d become so engrained in the rhythm of “speaking local,” I forgot to turn it off!
It made me wonder what other communication habits we get into without noticing. Sometimes a friend or colleague will help us see we annoyingly end every contribution with “Sooooooo” when really there was nothing more coming. Or we repeat ourselves — within the same sentence: “She said, ‘I know’ she said, ‘I really have to try harder.” Or we interrupt while someone’s finishing a thought. The list can go on and on. We all have communication habits that could be pruned. But most of us aren’t aware of them.
If you have a friend brave enough to speak up, as Jana did when I was being unconscious, thank him/her for pointing out your habit. Better yet, invite him/her to help you clean up your communication and be the best communicator you can be. Then make sure not to get mad when s/he does!