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.