ld years’ eve, 2006. Baguette, smelly cheese and four bottles of authentic Champagne in tow – my family and I are the ultimate sore thumb traveler clan. Among groups of locals we parade down cobblestone backstreets, enjoying softening sunlight brushing bare trees and relishing the palpable buzz of celebration. Passing us at varying paces are young families, old couples and pockets of exuberant youths lucky enough to still share our enchantment with their home town. The whole thing pongs of romance, but we couldn’t care less: we’re in Paris! A particularly swanky group of young Parisian men saunters past us, gesturing jovially in our direction. As they overtake us, the cockiest of the lot turning to face us. Walking backward he flashes me a cheeky grin and locks eyes with my father. Some or other verbal exchange ensues in French, my father in his limited capacity retorts with an arrogance we’ve come to know as ‘protective.’ The boys throw their heads back at this unexpected twist, and the instigator nonchalantly shrugs and raises his eyebrows in faux apology. His sharp jaw disappears under his grin and he gives a dramatic bow before turning back to his friends – clearly satisfied with the knowledge that we’re all infected with the spirit and charm of whatever-the-fuck-just-happened. (My 9th grade French teacher wouldn’t be surprised that my 6 months of French yielded nothing but a few useless words and a fairly convincing accent. Her words will ring true for the rest of my life: “You’re lucky you can fake it.”) Nevertheless, the expression on my fathers’ face and the glimmer in the zesty Frenchman’s eyes were enough for us to glean what had been communicated. I blushed, my mother chuckled and my brother rolled his eyes. Oh, France!
Like any self-respecting woman, I stand firm in the belief that communication is of the highest priority in every situation. As a philosopher however, this means a lot more to me than being capable of bitching when a spouse leaves the toilet seat up. Much to my dismay I’ve discovered that successful communication is not as common as it should be. In fact, it took moving to the other end of the world to learn that sharing a first language is not a prerequisite for such success, and having spent so much time trying to communicate with foreign-language speakers, I’ve learned that it may actually be more of an obstacle. The majority of us tend to take our shared linguistic arsenal completely for granted and expect that our attempts to elicit understanding from our listeners are enough, resulting in all kinds of frustration and dissatisfaction.The goal of communication is to provide to others access into our thoughts and ideas, it’s the reason we use the word “accessible” to commend literature and film, it makes us happy when we succeed in exchanging information. The greatest challenge is to provide that access in a way that is clear, concise, and occasionally entertaining. Communication becomes a fun little game in which we have to rely on intuitions, gesticulations and universal references. Unfortunately, when we rely on shared language alone we seem to forget that we are the only ones with unfettered access to our own constant stream of consciousness, and more often than not we fail at expressing ourselves in a satisfactory way. If we took consciousness to be an ever-tangling amalgamation of multi-colored yarn being spun every moment of our lives, perpetually creating an intricate tapestry of everything-we-are, then every sentence we speak would be an attempt to pull out a single, concise fraction of a thread. Sadly, we rarely cough up more than frayed and mangled knots. Since living in Korea I’ve lowered my expectations of day-to-day communication. I’ve done away with polite conversations and salutations at grocery stores and coffee shops. I realize as I arrive at the counter of a coffee shop that saying any more than “Americano, double shot” is just unnecessary and could actually be too stressful for both the barista and me.Though it’s been a grand lesson in minimalism, limiting my speech was definitely disappointing for a while. For as long as I can remember, big words and rhythmical turns-of-phrase have aroused and thrilled me, as if they were little keys to unlocking the grand mysteries of the human condition. I know it’s a decadent indulgence, and I’m aware that it’s a complete luxury. Just like furnishing and decorating my shoebox apartment is an utterly superfluous exercise, I derive great joy from it and I do it purely for comfort and amusement, but I am always on the brink of deep guilt for how completely unnecessary it really is. Traveling and living in a foreign country is known to reveal how little we can live with, how little we really need. One of my favourite parts of any trip is to challenge myself to pack as light as possible, and invariably I’ll discover that I could have done with even less than I’d thought. The same is true for communication, though it’s slightly more difficult to apply these principles to something we rely on for daily survival.Of course, it has taken about a thousand words for me to express the idea that when communicating, sometimes less is more; and not even in a way with which I can say I’m truly satisfied.
Johannesburg, March 2nd, 2012. My first day out in the real world after a year living in Korea. A few friends, my father and I make our way down to the recently “reclaimed” and gentrified downtown to peruse The Neighbourgoods Market. At the threshold I’m met with some sort of force-field that gives me a minute to collect myself in the face of the intimidating throngs of hipsters in fedoras and alpaca fur sweaters, drinking craft beer and eating gluten-free Turkish spring rolls with a side of dipping sauce reeking of pretension. I don my horse-blinkers and bee-line for the coffee stand; but before I can place my generic “Americano, double shot” order, I’m met with not only an unnecessarily large grin and boisterous greeting, but an overdose of information about the array of aromatic, fair-trade, organic coffee blends from all over Africa. The barista manages to fit an unsettling volume of information into a minute long monologue that leaves me completely overwhelmed and slightly off balance. So many English. Too much wordy. Friendly mouth noise. No…compute. Err…or. Access DENIED! “Errrmm…Americano, double shot…milk…please.”