I want you to imagine you are in a room full of people who speak a different language to you. You can see that a stranger is approaching you and is waving his arms around and saying things directly to you, but you have no idea what he is saying. From the tone of his voice you can recognise that he is growing more and more impatient, yet as hard as you try you still cannot comprehend what he is saying.
Now I want you to imagine you are explaining something to someone who speaks a different language to you. It’s clear to see that they are struggling to understand. You have to be careful of every word you say; trying to make sure that the message isn’t overly complex but still gets the message across.
Both of these situations are frustrating and it’s hard to contemplate living a life in which communication is restricted like this. Even a simple conversation with a person at the corner shop can be a massive deal for a person with a communication problem, as they struggle to understand what is being said to them or find it hard to express what they are trying to say. In my part time job I have encountered many times in which I have had to communicate with an individual for whom English was their second language.
*ANECDOTE TIME* One customer in particular who always sticks in my mind was a man who came in store to purchase some jogging bottoms and a t-shirt for his Mum who was in hospital (it’s easy to talk about all this now, but at the time it took a good 10 minutes to find the exact products he needed!)
The man began by explaining he wanted clothes for his Mum who was ill in bed. I interpreted this as the man wanting to buy some pyjamas (as these are clothes that you wear in bed). So I took him to the section in store where the ladies PJ’s are all neatly lined up. He looked rather perplexed, shook his head and said “No no, not these. Smart trousers”. At this point I was slightly confused as the thought of wearing smart trousers in bed was an alien concept to me. As I led the man to the ladies formal wear section in store, he began to try and tell me a little bit more about what he was looking to purchase and it got a little more confusing; he added that his Mum needed smart trousers to wear in bed as there were professionals coming to look at her. This stunned me as I had no clue how to decode what I had just heard. I continued to show him different items in the shop and he still seemed underwhelmed. Then all of a sudden I had a little light bulb moment- maybe his Mum was in hospital? There, she would be in a bed and professionals would be coming to look at her (doctors and nurses). I’d cracked the code!
I finally managed to piece together that the man wanted to buy jogging bottoms and a t-shirt for his Mum as these were smarter than pyjamas when the doctors were coming to speak to her. In hindsight it is easy to understand exactly what the man wanted, but at the time it was quite confusing for both the customer and I. With a little patience and perseverance on both parts we managed to get the products the man wanted in the end, and seeing the smile on his face when I wished him and his Mum well was priceless.
It’s sometimes hard to imagine life in someone else’s shoes but by empathising and trying your best to understand how others feel, situations are dealt with more easily and people can communicate more effectively with one another. A little bit of patience and imagination can go a long way.