Intentionally or not, we rob ourselves when we overlook the challenges others face in those situations that we find ourselves breezing through. As a complex and incomprehensibly diverse society, growing ever more connected, this is a consistent issue that none of us can afford to ignore.
The solution? Empathy, of course!
Cultivate empathy. Ok. Got it.
Here’s an everyday exercise, in five simple steps.* Feel free to put this into action immediately.
1 • Inadvertently invite a conversation for which you are not equipped.
Prerequisite: Barely know the language.
Bonus points: If your appearance / position makes it an “obvious” assumption that you would be fluent in said language.
2 • Struggle.
Search for words and terms. Be at a loss. Apologize. Smile lots. Feel awkward.
3 • Understand.
How frustrating it can be to truly represent yourself & communicate in a foreign language. Know in your heart of hearts that you know so much more than what you’re able to articulate.
4 • Hope.
That people ‘get’ and appreciate that you’re not some bumbling idiot. That your stammer and struggle does not overshadow the fact that you’re actually extremely interesting, inquisitive, insightful, and witty. Usually.
5 • Be humbled.
By how hard others have to work to be understood in even the simplest of contexts, when outside of their element. By how much we don’t know, when things can’t be communicated. By the untapped – separated by a chasm, inadequately bridged by broken phrases.
• • •
Whether the unfamiliar language is English, Mandarin, Portuguese, professional jargon, Python, or an underlying cultural narrative – not knowing how to communicate in a certain medium can make things frustrating. Difficult. Awkward. Staccato.
Yet as native speakers, our fluency, ease, and command can make these struggles easy to overlook; easy to take for granted.
These five simple steps are an exercise in empathy, broken down. Of course, there are countless permutations, nuances, and opportunities to practice empathy on the daily. Yet sometimes, a good old break-it-down-for-me list is a good reminder of how these imperative human skills aren’t restricted to workshops and grand situations for learning.
It’s in the everyday. It’s the little things are the big ones.
Have you been in a similar situation – hoping for a bit of understanding and compassion for your little struggle? Has someone else recently looked to you with that same hope? Did you notice?
*Inspired by a simple encounter. This adorable elderly Punjabi lady – silwar kameez, oversized sweater, floppy touque, sneakers, and a semi-toothless grin – joins me in the standing-room only Transit skytrain car. No-one offers her a seat. My thought process: “I’ll ask someone to give her a seat.”
Immediately followed by internal dialogue. “Hold it. Agency. Dignity. No assumptions. Maybe she doesn’t want to sit? Ask her first.” I ask her first. In Punjabi. (A simple, single sentence I can do, no sweat. Before a conversation exists, there’s time to think, search for the right words, and rehearse.)
No, she’s good.
“Busy today isn’t it?” she asks. In Punjabi.
Hmm… I had not thought this one all the way through. (Language comprehension outperforming speaking ability in this arena. By a lot. Neither of which are impressive.)
I stumble through my clunky conversation with her. No more than 3 minutes, our entire ‘chatty’ encounter, before we once again became two silent bodies riding in a metal tube towards our repective destinations. She made an impression on me, though. It was awkward. And it was worth it. For that, I thank her.
Lovely post. I’m looking for ways to “get out of my comfort zone” and I think I’m overlooking all the ways I already do. I would like to share my story that this post made me re-examine in a new light.
I was walking through Gastown, on Hastings Street, because sometimes I get really curious about what people are doing there. A guy, my age, a drug dealer, says hello and we begin a conversation. He buys me a coffee and I have the most difficult time explaining my career path to him. He hates computers. Another person we meet on the street repays him a $3 debt. I so badly want to ask him the most personal questions, to find out why he is there, what brought him down this path in life. Instead I ask him what the biggest problem he faces right now – and he says he has none. He tells me to be careful and waves goodbye.
I didn’t know how to communicate with him to get what I wanted from the conversation – and I felt sad afterwards. But, it was definitely worth it.
Thanks so much for sharing that, Tera. Putting ourselves into those uncomfortable situations that stretch us can be such an easy thing to do sometimes, and yet I find most of us pass up the majority of the chances peppering our daily lives. I’ve definitely been around Gastown many times while deliberately *not* engaging with others (apart from a smile / nod) – residents of the streets & tourists alike. It’s a conscious choice, something that demands a certain energy, and just like your story — may not always wrap up nicely or the way we would intend.
“Instead I ask him what the biggest problem he faces right now – and he says he has none. He tells me to be careful and waves goodbye.” This was my favorite part of your story: such a dose of perspective. Always worth it, when we put ourselves out there. Thanks for living it, and for sharing here!