Healing Words

Steps souls stronger

In January of 2011, seven and a half years ago, 19 people were shot and six people died in Tucson, Arizona. The target was a U.S. representative, Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head. She survived, but her life will never be the same. The tragedy caused a nation that was hyper focused on how to be as uncivil as possible to each other, particularly in disagreement, to pause and, for a short time, put away the rhetoric.

Barack Obama was president at the time, and he spoke words that were praised across the political spectrum at the Tucson Memorial Service.

Among other things, he said this:

“At a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

I reread these words this morning, and I am again challenged by them.

Words that heal are rare and critically important in moments of tragedy.  But they are just as important in everyday life.  I look around as I walk the streets of my city and I see the “walking wounded”.  I go on social media, and I see more wounds. Yet our default mode is not to speak healing words, but rather words of criticism and disapproval. I’d love to blame just the media for words that wound and criticize, but I know differently.  I am far more guilty than I want to admit. The power of language and the way we put our words together is up to us; the way I put words together and how I use them is up to me.

My faith tradition has strong admonition and warning about the tongue. An entire chapter in the New Testament is devoted to talking about the tongue. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.”  And elsewhere I am exhorted to watch what I say, make sure it is gracious and seasoned with salt. “Let your speech be always full of grace, seasoned with salt.” 

These are sobering challenges for me. Just recently I was called out by someone, and appropriately so. She knows what I believe, and what I believe was not reflected in what I publicly wrote. She held up a mirror to me, and what reflected back was not pretty.

Our world is desperate for healing words. Desperate. Anxiety, depression, and suicide are all on the rise. Public bullying is at an all time high, and we have a plethora of poor public examples and a dearth of good ones in every area of life – whether that be politics or faith.

We can’t change what other people choose to say. But we can change our own words. We can choose to speak words of hope and grace. We can choose to disagree with civility and respect.

We can choose to share words that “make souls stronger”.*

*Ann Voskamp

“Welcome to English Class!”

Cover of "Why Don't They Learn English: S...
Cover via Amazon

In every municipality, in every major city, in every state from east coast to west “Welcome to English class!” is the call I would like to hear. As immigrants flock to various cities across the nation and long to find community and employment, the road is not easy. One of the areas where we could collectively encourage the adjustment process is by fighting for more English classes.

An article in the New York Times gives some interesting information about immigrants in New York State. A report called “Bad English” put out by the Center for an Urban Future in Manhattan warns of some far-reaching consequences to something seemingly as simple as cutting budgets for ESOL classes.

Census bureau numbers indicate that from 2005 to 2009 there was a six percent rise in the number of people that identified as speaking English “less than very well”. The six percent ends up being a figure of about 1.7 million people. At the same time the number of people enrolled in ESOL classes had decreased to only four percent of those adults who spoke English poorly.  The report looked at this from an economic view and warned of the serious impact to the economy. Specifically, the report states that this reality  “threatens the state’s ability to tap the skills of immigrant entrepreneurs and workers to strengthen local economies”. The problem is not only adults – because of a shortage of teachers in the school system the city of New York identified over 5,000 children not getting the English they need to be succesful in a school setting.

I have never met an immigrant who was not desperate to learn English and begin working. The reality is that English skills are a necessity in most jobs within the United States. They are also important when it comes to communicating to your child’s teachers, to health care providers, to your bank and in your local grocery store. It is not easy to function without English language skills when you are creating a new life for yourself and your family.

In a book published in 2001 by Lucy Tse called Why Don’t They Learn English? Separating Fact from Fallacy in the U.S. Language Debate some of the public perceptions of immigrants and language learning are studied and found to be myths. For instance, the author found that  immigrants and their children want to learn English and attempt to do just that in any way they can despite the many challenges that face them, one of them being a lack of ESOL classes.

The president of Laguardia Community College in a letter to the editor of the New York Times from earlier this fall says that “people hungry to learn English are placed on a waiting list that extends up to two years.”  That’s not good enough. We can do better and my guess is that these classes would pay back ten fold what is spent through the investment in people and what immigrants give back to their communities

And so I’ll ask those hard questions: Do we want immigrants to be a significant part of our communities? Do we want immigrants to contribute to the economy in our towns? Cities? States? Do we want immigrants to feel a part of the country and not become burdened with bitterness and frustration?  If so then fight for an English for Speakers of other Language class in your community. Start an ESOL class in your faith community. Be patient and willing to let people practice on you, encouraging them through the journey. Be the first to say “Welcome to English Class!”

Bloggers Note: At 83 and 85 years old my mom and dad both teach English to Speakers of Other Language classes through a church in their area. Through them I’ve learned that age is no excuse to not act.

Language and Diplomacy (aka The Importance of Knowing Urdu)

The Iranian captain took a risk and used Urdu and the navy “just happened” to have an Urdu speaker on board – this is the story at the heart of the rescue of thirteen Iranian fisherman who were captured by Somali Pirates.

And what a story it is! Iran is a country that is understood primarily through its infamous leader and is not a favorite of the United States. Westerners rarely think of the amazing heritage that comes out of Iran – the history, the beauty of carpets, the delight of the cuisine, and something that must be mentioned – the stunning beauty of Iranian women. I once said to one of my Iranian friends: “When God created women, first he made Iranian women, and after that he didn’t have much beauty left over for the rest of us”. All this is mostly unknown to the western world who view Iran through the lens of a misunderstood veil and Ayatollah’s that make news through sometimes outrageous comments.

The tension between the two countries sparks and sizzles, occasionally bursting into a full flame. This story is an unlikely story of diplomacy on the high seas and of the importance of language and diplomacy. It was on Thursday that the US Naval ship heard a distress call from the Iranian vessel. The fisherman had been captured for six weeks, complying and biding their time, praying and hoping for rescue. The Iranian captain used Urdu, a language that the pirates did not understand, to communicate the need for help to the naval ship. A linguist aboard the ship who understood Urdu was able to translate the message and the result was a rescue of the fisherman and capture of  fifteen pirates.

To give context to how amazing this is, it might help to hear a well-known joke among expatriates:

What is a person who knows two languages called? Bilingual

What is a person who knows three languages called? Trilingual

What is a person who knows one language called? An American

It’s sad but true. Americans are not known for linguistic skill. Our geographic isolation on the world map puts us in a place where learning a second language is not a high priority. To my knowledge, there is no federal law that requires schools to offer a foreign language. It is left up to individual states to decide if and when a foreign language will be offered. Often when a language is available it is not until seventh or eighth grade and at that point a child is about 13 or 14 years old. The chances of them picking up anything more than a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ during a 45 minute school period is minimal. It is quite tragic. But this story is not a story of tragedy but a story of linguistic skill responding in a potentially fatal situation and changing the outcome dramatically.

When we speak the language of another, we speak to their heart. “You know our language?” they may say with delight, thoroughly surprised that someone from America is familiar with Hindi, or Urdu, or Arabic or Farsi. While there are a myriad of ways to communicate beyond verbal communication, there is something about language and voice that connects us.

In my work I see error and tragedy averted continuously through good interpreters who skillfully navigate between doctor and patient and nurse and patient, helping to prevent miscommunication and increase understanding. It is a different kind of diplomacy and while it doesn’t hit the news, it is as tremendous as the rescue of the thirteen Iranian fisherman.

The end of the story put a smile on my face. Iran “welcomed the rescue of 13 Iranian sailors by a U.S. Navy ship, calling it a ‘humanitarian act.'”(CNN)  The picture I have in my mind of American navy men waving at Iranian fisherman headed home, smiling, wearing USS Kidd Navy ball caps?  Now that’s a picture of diplomacy.

Bloggers Note: The author wishes to confess that she speaks Urdu and Arabic enthusiastically but poorly and would never have been able to rescue the fisherman. She could however let the pirates know in fluent Urdu that they were completely uncivilized!

Little Word: Big Problem

Google the word civility in the Google News search bar and you will come up with 7,699 hits between the dates of January 13 to January 18.  That’s a lot of news on a little word.  It’s a little word but a big problem.

Over seven thousand choices but I have picked three favorites. An op-ed piece by David Brooks, a letter to the editor of the NY Times, and lastly a Times article looking at hope in the midst of tragedy.

Tree of Failure:  This op-ed piece speaks to the places humility and acknowledgment of failure play in the dialogue process and the political process.  It’s the check and balance system that reminds the writer or speaker they don’t know everything and  perhaps haven’t  looked at the other side of the issue, forgotten a crucial talking point or maybe haven’t  checked all the facts. That “even if you are at your best, your efforts will still be laced with failure. The truth is fragmentary and it’s impossible to capture all of it ” and that  civility comes “from a sense of personal modesty and from the ensuing gratitude for the political process”.

Here’s my take: If able to admit to failure and display a fraction of humility, the voices of both public people and the media could become voices of substance and value.  When unable to show these characteristics they become white noise (annoying when I focus on it so better to ignore and sleep through it) The problem – failure and humility doesn’t sell and is rarely shared as a Facebook status.

Civility Among Centrists:  This letter to the editor argues that it’s the far sides of the spectrum that are unable to be civil.  That those more moderate “engage in moral and political discourse with civility”.  The words and tone of the letter are compelling and an advertisement for a more centrist view.

My last pick and the one that needs no words to explain why is the story from Time Magazine “Tucson’s Rays of Hope: Empathy, Civility and Donated Organs Restore the Sense of Sight for Two Children”.

Take a look and see what you think – if you have articles that have caught your eye and mind on civility be sure to give the link in the ‘Comments’ section.

“Talking together makes wise”

Cairo University
Cairo University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a book titled “Tomorrow, God Willing a Norwegian anthropologist writes from her experiences befriending a family in a poor neighborhood in Cairo.  The book gives a portrayal of life in Cairo primarily through the perspective of Umm Ali (Mother of Ali) with others from the extended family lending their voices to the narrative.  It is one of my favorite books for a variety of reasons, one of those being my love for the city of Cairo and Egyptians.

The prologue quotes Umm Ali saying: “I like talking with people, Talking together makes wise. Where had we humans been and what had we understood if we did not tell each other what each of us thinks and feels….it is a life necessity to be able to talk.”

She then proceeds to let the author enter her world, a world of loss and tragedy, poverty and joy, anger and love and then communicate those stories on paper.  She gets the importance of ‘talk’ in communicating the ordinary and extraordinary events of her life.

The back streets of Cairo are an unlikely setting and Umm Ali perhaps an unlikely source of wisdom, but wisdom it is. She viewed talking as a gift to “purge you of sorrow/anger and invigorate your soul”.  This quote from an Egyptian woman living in poverty with no education.  In light of a media frenzy over the power of words over people, Umm Ali recognized their power in the best way possible.  To communicate in order to express her feelings and life story and in doing create understanding between people who don’t live or think in the same way that she or those around her do.

Cairo is a city of over 16 million people. That’s a lot of voices and a lot of stories but sometimes  one story is all it takes to “make wise”.

Blog Talk

Monkeys Blogging
Image via Wikipedia

I’m new at blogging and am encouraged that people are actually reading the blog!  So for readers here’s what to expect from this novice –

  • I’ll be blogging every week day compiling reader responses into one blog post on some Saturdays.
  • Occasionally there will be a series because of my passion for a topic.  I’ll always link these together so when you decide to take a look you’ll be able to read the complete series.
  • I have realized how much bloggers want comments and feedback in the short time I’ve been at this – so thanks to those of you who have commented, those who haven’t please feel free to give your take and your ideas.  It gives me and other readers more to think about and lets me know where readers opinions and thoughts lie.
  • My posts will rarely be more than 500 words long to make them easily scanned.  The Pakistan Series was a different story – so much to communicate, and so much more I’d like to communicate.  Other  posts are, and will  be, shorter.
  • I welcome guest authors, so if you like to write, have cross-cultural experiences and communication stories or other thoughts you want to share but don’t want your own blog – have at it!   I want  your stories and will make sure they get on the blog. Make sure you include a brief bio with the piece and send to communicatingblog@gmail.com
  • Upcoming topics to look for:  Refugees, Invisible and Visible Immigrants, , more on Pakistan, Egypt, healthcare, Cross-cultural adjustment in all its various forms and more!
  • Remember if you subscribe – you can choose the way to receive these in your inbox – instantly, daily or weekly.

So thanks for reading – if you think there’s material on here that is worth sharing I’m honored!

Texting, Emoticons & Miscommunication

“Let’s all eradicate the emoticon” was the challenge in a humorous article put out by CNN Tech the beginning of December.  (Evidently the guy who invented the emoticon did so because on-line computer science groups didn’t recognize humor….now there’s a surprise!)

I couldn’t agree more!  It’s hard enough to limit my words into a reasonable number that can fit into a text message and still be understandable.  Add in emoticons and the words often take on a tone of their own.  I realized that emoticons could grossly misrepresent my emotions in their delivery a couple of years ago.   My husband was away at a conference, I stayed home with the kids and one extra addition – a friend visiting my daughter.

In the middle of the week, sort of at the “Ok – I’ve had enough” point  my husband sent me a text message  saying he was thinking of me and he loved me….I responded with an emoticon and there is where the trouble began.  I did not know that all emoticons are not created equal and that in transmission they could be translated and then interpreted into something I did not mean.  As my two smiley faced, yellow, happy, not a care in the world emoticons made their way through sprint wireless they translated into red devils.

On return it took a while  to sort out what had happened that day – but sort it we did.  We looked back at the messages, both Sent and Received.  There were the culprit emoticons looking completely innocent unaware of the havoc wreaked by their silly little faces.  How could these emoticons have so failed me in transmission and translation?  In the words of “The Economist” don’t they realize “they add life to  (my) telegraphic language of text messages” ? A language that I use daily in communicating to many around me.

I no longer use emoticons as much as I used to.  I can’t afford the potential miscommunication.   :) :(  So let’s eradicate the emoticon and revolutionize the way we communicate, or at least improve it.

If you want to see how European politics look through emoticons take a look at the first article: Emoticon Diplomacy