Bali and Thailand are called the “Land of Smiles.” Undoubtedly an endearing nickname, but after two months traveling in that part of the world, I started to think the moniker had less to do with the island’s mood, and more to do with its language.
Unless you speak the local language, your conversation will be bartered with a grin, a smile, a chuckle and a nod. I found this to be true in Australia, too, where I met so many international backpackers who had only a few words in common with each other, but shared so many more smiles instead.
As my ears opened to these new dialects and new accents, my eyes did, too, and I saw how when you’re interacting with someone who doesn’t speak your language, the playing field levels. Communication is simplified in a way that is humble in its honesty. The exchange is pared down, back to the basics.
I found this to be true of text messaging, as well. It’s not just a language mismatch made digital but cultural differences too: crystallized, literally, into pixel. The tricky nuances of conversation fall out of focus, overshadowed by the basic act of communicating. Suddenly, the little things don’t matter to so much. Should you have added that extra ‘y’ to ‘Hey!’ in your greeting? Doesn’t matter. Did that period totally ice over the tone of your entire text? Not an issue. You can’t fret over that perfect number of minutes (8? 15? 45?) to wait before responding, because there’s no time to play games when having a conversation is work enough in itself.
Really, though: imagine trying to play a game with someone who doesn’t speak your language, or who isn’t from your country. Try playing Cards Against Humanity with two people who speak far better Spanish than they do English: it just doesn’t work. Comparably, Apples to Apples is pretty much a moot point when the players don’t share a vocabulary—linguistic or cultural—and Trivial Pursuit turns into charades.
When you’re communicating without a common language, you fall back on the one commonality you do have: body language. A high five. A smile. A hug. A kiss on the cheek. A pat on the back. And, when you do have the ability to communicate with a shared language, even if your vocabulary set is skeletal, you tend to be a more receptive listener, struggling to hear what the other person is trying to express, rather than paying attention to how exactly they’re trying to say it. Your ears perk to substance rather than style, and suddenly, your language barrier becomes less of a barrier and more of a bridge.
Words can be meaningful, yes, but actions more so, even if that action is something as easy as saying goodbye with a crazy-big smile or something as hard as, well, actually listening to the person you’re talking to.
Ultimately, there is a great power in showing your feelings for what they are in their raw form, rather than dressing them up, or even distorting them, with fancy words. There is a great vulnerability in worrying less about how exactly you’re perceived, and more about if what you’re saying is genuine, necessary, and meaningful. Speak from your heart. Not your head.
A digital media assistant for Wanderlust, Katie Doyle joined the team while traveling southeast Asia. A month after graduating from college, she took her journalism degree on a tour around Indonesia, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. A writer at heart, she lives for the moments when a good story pops in her head – especially when it happens during savasana. In addition to practicing yoga, she is a ski instructor who loves sunshine just as much as she loves snow.