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Smiles, Not Fists . . .
by Beth Boswell Jacks

“I know you believe you understand
what you think I said, but I’m not
sure you realize that what you heard
is not what I meant.”
~ Robert McCloskey

Oh, what a monster miscommunication can be! Whether we’re trying to discuss and understand an issue with folks who speak our language or whether we’re stumbling along, trying to communicate with those who speak a foreign language, we can get in a heap of trouble.

Example: There’s a Bulgarian proverb that goes, “Seize opportunity by the beard, for it is bald behind.”

And that means exactly what? Seize opportunity from the front, fast, because once it has passed you’ve got nothing? That must be it. Or could it mean, perhaps, that we must face opportunity squarely, up front and honestly, because the back door is not welcoming? Or maybe, if you’re going to win the fight, you’d better hang on to the sticking out thing because what’s behind may not be grippable. Or . . .

I give up.

Understanding other cultures and languages takes lots of patience, something in short supply for most of us.

My friend Jackie presented an interesting study at our church several Saturdays ago about India and Pakistan. She’s made two trips there with United Methodist Church groups, and she shared with us the things she learned through her travel and study. Listening to Jackie, watching her slides and video, reading her handouts, I wished that programs such as this were more widely available and that all of us were anxious to avail ourselves of these presentations and discussions.

Writer James Howell once said, “Our best candle is our understanding.” How can we make our way through the darkness if we don’t broaden our knowledge of the world and its people?

A dear former classmate, Bobby Joe Moon in Houston, Texas, e-mailed me this morning with this comment: “I frequent the Boba Café (boba are Asian fruit/ice drinks like Smoothies) next to Houston Community College’s Central Campus. We see many international students there from African countries, Central and South America, Asian and European countries. I engage them in conversation whenever I can. Today I spotted some beautiful young ladies from Ethiopia and asked them: ‘Are you from Addis?’ Their eyes lit up. I told them I enjoy their food like enjera – people everywhere love to talk about their food . . .”

I’d say Bobby Joe is working to keep his “candle” lit!

The good news is that opportunities for world study and travel are out there – not just for the leisure lover, but also for all who want to take advantage of foreign jobs and schooling.

And there are additional ways for us to learn about other nations and other cultures, including films and books and the chance to host international students and visitors in our homes. I believe the only hope for our world is that candle of enlightenment that comes when we’re receptive to the idea of communicating and understanding those we perceive as “different.”

That also means listening.

“People can only hear you when they are moving toward you,” writes Edwin H. Friedman, “and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.”

Many of us, in too many corners of this world, home and abroad, seem to have forgotten something important: Without communication we’re doomed . . . and the most effective form of communication is a smile – not a fist.

Yeah, I know that peace, nation to nation and neighbor to neighbor, is not as simple as smiles. We have to have some starting place for our beliefs though, don’t we?

I’ve got my starting place all figured out – it’s the result of sixty years of Sunday School and good parental guidance – a mixture no dispute can dilute.


[This column is dedicated to my mother-in-law, Marjorie Jacks, 96, who has promoted communication, understanding and peace throughout her life.]


For more SNIPPETS stories, read these:
Forget Your Troubles ~ C'mon, Get Older!
Searching for the inner animal
Dance ~ the Soul's Hidden Language

Editor of USADEEPSOUTH, Beth Boswell Jacks is the author of 3 books (Grit, Guts, and Baseball and Snippets I and II) and is also a weekly columnist for a number of Southern newspapers. Readers and editors may contact her at bethjacks@hotmail.com.
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