Three Language Lessons Among the Macaws

by Margaret Watts Romney

I’m sitting in a metal tube two miles above the surface of the earth jetting forward at speeds I don’t understand. The modern day miracles of of flight, social connectivity, and frequent flyer points have bestowed on me the experiences of white beaches, wild macaws, and 90 degrees in January. Now I am returning home. At a latitude of only 9.7 degrees North above the equator, this trip was the furthest south I have been in my life, and my first time out of the country in 10 years.

 

I had forgotten the experience of feeling thick tongued and wide eyed looking into the faces of humans speaking incomprehensibly to me, with nothing to offer in return. I had erroneously assumed my travel companions had some Español in their pocket to ease this journey, so I had neglected to brush up on my 20+ year old Spanish. We mostly relied on the kindness of others who had learned our language. We could navigate our travels relying on this kindness, but my inability to connect gracefully with the other humans felt like trying to tango while wearing a straitjacket.

I quickly downloaded a language tutorial app, and old vocabulary came popping into my head. I am! I eat! I sleep! Head! Hand! Nose! Fish! Milk! Fruita! Tortuga! Mariposa! My tongue which had been so very embarrassed in the past to shape my vowels in the front of my mouth and roll my R’s was so happy now to try. So happy to participate in whatever unfamiliar antics it took to remove the social straightjacket.

I approached any open smiling face with my clumsy plea - Yo quiero practicar mi Español, por favor. Please let me practice. I knew I would slaughter verb tenses and conjugations, but I trusted in one of my 10 Commandments to Navigating Life: always try to connect, because humans need humans. Probably not everyone wanted to connect across the bridge of my mini Spanish lesson, but some might.

With so few words available to me, I found I was leaning on surprisingly effective non verbal skills. Energy, timing, and body language spoke paragraphs my words could not.

 

Here are three communication elements I found essential:

  • Energy: I reached out and tried. A simple hello, thank you, I’m sorry, yes, please, and goodnight, communicated something so much bigger than the few syllables exchanged. It said, “I understand. I am present. I see you. I value your presence here too.”

  • Timing: Sensing and being in sync with the timing of the other person opened doors. If they were feeling patient with my speaking attempts, I took my time to construct sentences, and they enjoyed the slow process of helping. If they were in their own life’s rush, a quick but appropriate “please,” and “thank you” were appreciated.  

  • Body language: A closed face, protective posture, or downturned eyes vs. an open smile, forward facing body and sustained eye contact communicated more in the moments before my mouth opened than anything that crossed my lips.

 

Having this opportunity to closely observe these microcosms of exchange reinforced to me the essential elements of human connection through communication. Whether we are conversing with strangers, pitching to investors, or giving a TEDx talk, the elements of human connection must be there if we want our audience to be open to our words and our message to stick. Our words will not be effective if they are for the purpose of showing off, seeking gain, or elevate ourselves. Joining first with our audience lays the groundwork for them to consider joining us.

 

Margaret Watts Romney