Talking vs. Communicating

Communication and understanding are the key to a happy life. I know this from the harsh reality of experience, as I’ve not always been the best at either of these. I guess time grants you wisdom and perspective – if you decide to pay attention.

In thinking of our preparation for moving to Spain, we joined several Facebook groups for Expats already living in our chosen city, and some specifically for Americans moving to or already living in Spain. It’s been eye opening and in many cases invaluable. But sometimes, it’s been ugly.

Hearing how some of my fellow countrymen speak about people in their chosen country of residence hurts. The harsh reality when they’ve discovered that the culture in Spain isn’t American. Surprise! They do things differently there and the people who run the country won’t bow down to ‘The American Way’. In reading their posts, I sometimes wonder why they don’t just go back to Kansas, or North Carolina or Virginia if they find it so hard to deal with.

It also made me examine myself. When I was still working, I did business with people from other countries, notably France, and decided it was a good time for an ‘Intercultural Communications’ class. It wasn’t because I couldn’t talk with the people in La Ciotat, France – where the other company resided. They spoke English. It was because we couldn’t communicate effectively, and I couldn’t figure out why.

We would have a daily call at the beginning of our day and then end of their work day. We would ask for things and they would always agree to do them. But then, they started missing dates on projects and their people were clearly stressed and working ungodly hours to meet our demands. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. So I flew to France.

Meeting with them face to face, I learned that in France – The Customer is Always Right – even if I was wrong, they would never tell me ‘NO’. In developing software, this is the killer. In the US, I would make demands of my engineers and they would tell me ‘You’re crazy if you think we can do that in that amount of time.’ I would ask them to help me be more realistic and they go away and think about it and come back and we would negotiate. My job was to push, their job was to push back. We both understood our roles.

The French team just said ‘Yes’ to every idea I had. But soon, I realized I had to give them permission to tell me I was ‘Full of it’. It made them uncomfortable at first, but we started working well together. And on that trip, I got to hear my team on the phone, from the perspective of the team in France. I was able to see their faces as my people in Seattle spoke, and how it landed 7,000 miles away. It wasn’t pretty and I went back home and we changed our approach.

So taking the ‘Intercultural Communications’ class was eye opening too. I learned that different cultures have different power hierarchies and power distances, and dynamics that are not ever discussed but are ingrained since birth. It’s the subtle things that govern how people interact. And it’s the agreed upon method of communication that everyone, except outsiders, understands.

So, when considering moving to another country, it’s imperative that we learn how to communicate effectively. Its not just being able to order a cafe con leche in a cafe in the right language. Or asking for directions. It’s the subtext and context that’s most important. And it’s cultural sensitivity and empathy.

We are the way we are in the US, because of our Puritanical roots and our cultural belief in manifest destiny and some sort of divine right. We’re taught that in school and by all the cultural cues we receive subliminally. But in Spain, the people are also a collection of their history and experiences. A history that stretches much longer than our Anglo-Christian view of the world. The Spanish people of today are a result of those experiences, just like us.

Jeff and I’ve had a lot of discussions about how, at times, we just won’t get it.  And we will trip and fall. But the most important things is, we need to approach it without judgement. And we need to stop, take a deep breath, and try to understand it from their perspective. With intercultural communications, there is no ‘right way’. There is just empathy and willingness to understand. Its the only way to get along in this life, even in our own country. And we’re committed to it.

The New World

It’s funny. My whole life I’ve been taught that the US is the great experiment. My country is where the term ‘Melting Pot’ was first coined. Mass immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century from the rest of the world – namely from Europe and Central Asia filled the US with new blood, new ideas, new traditions. And the cultures that were landed on our shores are what made us who we are today. Here in Spain, I feel the same way.

I walk down these streets and I see people from all over the world. I hear languages and smell food cooking that is distinctly not Spanish. The people here seem to embrace or certainly tolerate those from other countries. I’m not saying there is not skepticism. Certainly, me being from the US has caused some people to pause. I see them look at me like ‘Why are you moving here?’ and sometimes it requires me to provide additional documents. Some assume it’s because of our current political situation in the US, and they tell me so. But overall, the people I’ve met that are both Spanish, and from other countries, have been welcoming and hospitable. They just want to get to know me. And I find I want to get to know them.

The Schengen agreement in the EU means that there are people in Valencia from all over Europe. The PA I hired is Latvian. She speaks many languages but her Spanish has been invaluable in helping me navigate. I’ve looked at apartments that are owned by Iranians and others who are not from here. All of this is the international soup that makes me feel like we could make this home. We won’t be the odd man out, because so many are from other places around the world.

It is interesting, though. I’ve traveled all over the world. But I was always going to go back to the US – that was home. So even if I was in a country for an extended period of time, I knew that the US is where I would return, eventually. But it will be different now. We will be the ones coming to a new place – to build our lives. Living with people whose language we are terrible at speaking. Trying to navigate a system we don’t really understand.

It makes me stop and think back. Have I always been patient with others who have come to my own country from the outside? Have I had expectations that they ‘Should just know’ how our system and culture works? That they should be able to communicate effectively and jump into the flow at the same pace as the rest of us who were born into it?

Coming here has held up a mirror for me, and given me a different perspective on how we treat outsiders in the US. Maybe we could be more patient. Maybe we could allow those who seek a different life amongst us, to reshape us and make us better, more compassionate people. Maybe the New World isn’t a place, but a state of being. The State of Kindness.