Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Nonverbals Speak Louder Than Words

Make no mistake; I like words. Spoken, written, recited, sung, performed. I love coming across beautiful written words that call to me. I love the sound of voices raised in perfect harmony. I love putting thoughts on paper in eloquent and expressive sentences, and I love seeing the power words have over us, the way they can change our thoughts and actions.

Which is why it's so incredibly good for me to spend a significant amount of time unable to satisfactorily communicate myself.

When I came to Morocco two months ago, I knew about twenty words of Darija (Moroccan Arabic.) I've never before moved to a country knowing less of the language and yet being expected to navigate the streets almost immediately, move in with a family within a week, run activities in that language within a few weeks, and pass a language test within three months that will decide my future in Peace Corps. It was daunting and overwhelming, and even though I am a more experienced and more confident language learner than most, there have been days when I questioned my decision.

The amazing part about the language-learning experience, though, is all the things you learn that are unrelated to vocabulary. One of those, I'm discovering, is that the way you speak is not indicative of who you are as a person. Or how smart you are, or how much integrity you have. You can learn a lot from what a person says, but quite frankly, there are a lot of falsehoods that come from between the lips. You learn a lot more from what a person does when they think you can't understand them. Or what you do when you know that no one around you has the least idea what you're saying.

And then, little by little, you stop saying those things that no one can understand, and you start focusing on what you can do instead.

Imagine that. Imagine that every sarcastic little thing you mutter under your breath went unregistered. We pretend that we say these things to ourselves, but if that was true, why would we say them out loud? No, the reason we mumble under our breath is so that someone else will hear us and understand that we are annoyed.

What if no one understood? Would you continue to mutter?

Imagine that every witty comeback you deliver made sense only to you. We prize a quick wit, the ability to hit someone with rapid-fire words, but how often do those words lead only to hurt feelings? When you don't speak the language, you have to carefully construct each sentence and consider each word, and as you stumble through the sentence construction, your wittiness (and your emotion) are slowly removed from the equation.

What if your comebacks scored no hits? Would you continue to fire them?

Imagine only speaking one tenth of what you do now. Imagine those intense conversations, where you just have to make your voice heard, and yet you can't formulate the words fast enough to have a say. And yet, we have two ears and only one mouth, many acquaintances and only one “me.” Would it be such a bad thing to have to listen instead of speak? To quiet our inner champion who yearns to sally forth into the battle of spoken word, and instead release the peacekeeper who hears what others have to say?

What if you listened more than you spoke? How much more could you learn?

I'm a lover of words, but as much as I enjoy reading and hearing words produced by others, I'm learning to love to listen. There's no sense saying words for the sake of saying words, but it turns out there's a lot going on in the world if I just shut up and open my ears to it. When I stop worrying about things to say...my Darija improves and I learn new vocab, but I also exchange smiles with people I wouldn't normally make eye contact with, and I become more perceptive to when a friend needs a shoulder for leaning on, and I get really good at finding a different way to say something. Apologies are less worrisome, because I just say it the best I can rather than searching for the perfect words. When I want to buy something but can't find it but don't know the words to describe it, I smile and shrug and decide I don't need it that badly after all. I actually listen when someone else talks (rather creepily, actually, because I have to stare at the other person's lips in order to really understand them when they speak Darija), instead of spending the whole time formulating my next comeback.

It's amazing the things I hear, when I shut up long enough to listen.

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