Friday, June 25, 2010

A Mis-Communication or Two

 On any given day I will run into about 10-20 people who I have some sort of mis-communication with. Whether it’s verbal, visual, or the general form of body language, I interact over and over and over again with individuals that may or may not get it.   One of the things I am learning through my experiences here in Nairobi is just how important things like culture, where you come from and the things that you value all play an important role in the way that you communicate. 
  One thing that I’ve found myself doing a lot and having the other people do is agreeing on general things that I may not even really understand. At our work, we have a security guard named Kennedy. He’s such a sweet and wonderful guy, who is there to greet me every single day. He is warm and friendly and always asks me how my day is. To be frank…. I think that’s about all he knows how to say. Because every interaction beyond…”how is your day”….goes into these nervous motions where I am saying “good good and you”, to which he replies” ahh yes the weather ”, to which I respond, “it’s cold”…to which he responds …”yes”. A simple yes…with a nervous chuckle.  We both laugh and go on with our day…always with the same interaction day in and day out, every moment that we speak or pass. At first I thought, how strange and unusual for this person to do such a thing, but then I realized…I do the same thing.
  Many of my near and dear friends here in Kenya, to ME have a very heavy accent, or speak so softly that this “blasts his music so loud that it has severely damaged his ear drums” kid from the west, can’t hear.  So while I understand, interpret and even share in much of the conversation, there have been many MANY points where I causally agree to whatever it was that was said, despite my complete lack of comprehension.  In some instances, I causally just go along with the conversation and ensure that my intonation, my charisma and even my chuckles all seem to flow into the conversation even though I am completely blind to what is being said. I always feel so bad about it, yet at the same time, I feel even worse constantly having to ask people to speak a little louder, or to repeat themselves some times 3 or 4 times when even then, I sometimes still don’t understand. I peaceably agree and then move on in the conversation.
   Peacefully passing by in conversation can be something that is done to get through the moment, but I think in other way’s may lead to later confusion. To me this has been in the area of personal attractions…whether as friends or more. I think one of the areas that I have struggled with here has been when it comes to making plans and the personal interactions I have with some people. As most of the people who know me know, I am slightly outgoing and a fun personality to get along with…or so I like to think. Sometimes, however, it can be misinterpreted to mean more than what it is. A genuine interest in a person, sometimes gets misconstrued to mean that I am somehow interested in having a relationship with someone. There was an instance with one person where I was really happy and excited to learn more about this person’s life, but after being my gregarious self, I think he felt that I somehow wanted more…maybe it’s just because my general way is not normal for most people…but at the same time, maybe somewhere in there…there was some form of miscommunication.
     But after recent events that transpired earlier this week, I was forced to reflect on this concept from a different angle. Earlier this week I had written an email to a group of people back home (you know who you are) that I felt very passionate about, one that I thought would be uplifting, done with respect and care and concern for all parties involved.  But then I received some admonishments for the words that I wrote.  As I looked at the situation, at the same time that I was conceptualizing this blog, I realized something important.  That this phenomenon is not just some small thing I face in the culture of Nairobi.  Sure I have my miscommunications here and there while I’m here in Nairobi.  They are far more obvious and crazy here, but definitely not any more than I have miscommunications back in the states.  When it comes down to it, I think on a daily basis we all have some level where the things that we are trying to communicate can be interpreted and seen differently in multiple ways by the people that we interact with.  And I do the same thing.
   I think especially when you’re in a group of people who come from all different life experiences, backgrounds and locations, it’s easier, even within our own culture to misinterpret what is being said by any given party.  I think one of the biggest areas that I struggle with, but also recognize its importance within my life and in my every day interactions, is the intention with which I lead my life.
    I want to be a nice person. I want to be a real friend. I want to be a person that people can trust. I want to treat every person that I interact with, with love and care. I want to create a culture and a community where people can trust me. To do that though, I find that I often have to transcend or go against social norms, especially in communication. I’ve whittled it down to the realization that even in my smallest of actions, I create something. I create discomfort, I create anger, and frustration…but I also create reflection, dialogue and challenge beliefs and systems that trap individuals in only thinking in a certain way.  
      Some people question my motives, and rightfully so.  For instance, I’m a big old perv MOST of the time…it’s fun and exciting for me, I laugh all the time…and omg it’s fun to see people squirm. But at the depths of it, I recognize that I am creating a new space. It’s unconventional for sure, but through it, I help people stop just seeing me as that “gay man” and the sexual connotations that I am often confronted with just by saying I am gay…even by the little nun’s and grandma’s I meet. And suddenly when I get them to think about their own sexuality, to laugh about it, suddenly mine isn’t that big of a deal.  Obviously….this is something that can be misunderstood…ALL the time….hahaha
  But beneath that, and to the greater person that I am, I also find that the love and care that I try to lead my life with, the every moment and interaction that I believe creates a better world…is misinterpreted in so many ways. I remember being in an office once where I gave a compliment to my boss after a presentation. I said,” you know I really appreciate the presentation you gave. I felt like I learned a lot.” I believe in being honest and sharing when you feel something positive and beautiful about a person.  A week later I was called into the big bosses office and told that I had been condescending. “really?” But shoot, it happens.  The worse though is that my unconventional approaches some time’s are interpreted by other people that I don’t have strength or capacity to stand up for myself or get things done. It hints at incompetence….when for me, in reality I believe it is my greatest strength.  I sometimes feel undervalued because of my approach, but in my heart of hearts, I know that it is for a greater purpose that I believe to be important. And that is the fundamental element that values and appreciates every person in the world.  Where we forgive people for making mistakes and where we give people the chance to seek out their greater intentions and to find in ourselves the places that they connect too.
  Kennedy, the security guard and I, while we have somewhat strange and different interactions, at the end of the day, have become good friends. I may not be able to understand everything that he says, but I think we’ve found a much greater place to form our interactions. I only see him for about 5 minutes of my day during the week, but I appreciate him and the work that he does. I also feel that he appreciate me for who I am as well. All of that without really having to say a word.
 So whether in Nairobi or Nantucket, I think that communication is so important, yet it is also inevitably always misunderstood in one way or another, and we have to make room for that within our lives.  I think greater than our interpersonal communication, is also our ability to work outside of the confines us in expectations that may be unreasonable when we interact with people from different places from around the world. 
When it comes to Nairobi, while I mess up all the time….it really comes down to the amazing friends that I’ve made so far and ultimately our greater capacity to care and appreciate one another, despite the barriers that we face.  Miscommunication or not…sometimes you just have to step back and laugh at the insanity of it all. 


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  2. Where our words don't carry the message, everyone always goes away/stays processing the piece of communication, and whenever they look closely they find the motive of your reaching out to them/the essence of your greeting, argument, remark--and slowly, deeply, your words mean less and your motives a little more. So that in the end, you said most in what you never said.

    Perhaps it can't be all bad when you pass a conversation to avoid an embarrassment. Kennedy, I, we all know what your trying to do. Be friendly, enter, know, learn--and that is more important. That you mean well. We'll need time to muddle through accents, intonations, cultural-specific humor and all the clumsy linguistic obstacles to smooth chatter. Meanwhile, we're glad to have you here. And glad to attempt sharing.