by Peter Gent
When I first moved to Beijing to study, one of my worst fears involved taking taxis and getting lost. This of course happened soon after I arrived. Trying to get home one day, I flagged down a taxi and handed the driver my address written in Chinese, hoping he understood what I wanted and how to get there.
Instead we drove around and around, my driver seeming more and more flustered.
When we finally arrived at our destination, he looked at me through the driver’s mirror and said something untranslatable – mainly because I wasn’t sure what he said. Then grimacing, and facing me directly, he began to gesticulate with the sign of the cross.
I tried to back away.
As he leaned toward me, looming larger in my field of vision, he spoke again, saying something I thought to be along the lines of ‘get out of my cab, you spawn of Satan.’ Using the remaining words left in my vocabulary, I said the equivalent of ‘what?’, which could have meant either ‘what did you say?’ or ‘how did you know about my ancestry?’
I tried a smile (in hindsight baring my teeth could have been a poor choice). But all ended well – or well enough – when to my shame I realized he was asking for ten yuan, the minimum taxi fare. Head down and face flushed with embarrassment I handed over the correct amount and slunk away. The hand sign that looked like a cross, I would later learn, was a common way of signifying the number ‘ten’.
As it turns out, if you cross enough cultures, you eventually learn how to communicate with or without words, just so long as you are willing to face the inevitable embarrassment of yourself and others.
When I was a kid, I once read in the back of a phonebook that the best way for immigrants to learn a new language is to join in conversations, interjecting if necessary. Don’t ask me why I was reading the back of the phonebook. I’m just sorry for all my friends who now realise why I interject in conversations whenever I feel a bit lost.
These days when my friends or family come to visit me in Britain, I often notice them making easily avoidable cultural errors. The fact that I notice means that I have learned something about how to communicate and function cross-culturally. And whilst learning to avoid obvious miscues does not save me from making more innovative cultural errors, it is a nice thought that I have at least diminished the vast library of cultural mistakes I typically draw upon.
British English is not really a new language to me, but there are plenty of fun words and phrases that don’t mean what one would think they mean: ‘you might need to think more about that’, for example, which I’ve only had directed at me once, but by someone who I respect and admire. Some might think this would mean something along the lines of, ‘think a little more; you’re on the right track.’ I had been here long enough to know it was not so kind. To this day I am deflated.
In any case, travelling and living abroad has vastly improved my skills at reading people. Facial expressions, gestures, and tone often say more than words. Learning to use these, especially the ones that are universal human gestures, is effective for relating to people at home and abroad.
Some of these forms of body language are obvious. The death glare, for instance, is a universal signal that you are doing something wrong and should stop now.
Even worse is the deadeye glare, executed with no emotion at all. It is a specialty of actors and Oxford academics. In these cases it is impossible to tell on what footing you stand, or if in fact you have already fallen.
Then there is the welcoming smile, which can be either an indication of friendship or, conversely, a sign that you have crossed a hidden line and are now effectively a nonperson. Or maybe it just looks creepy. On the other hand, often when I respond to bad news, people think I’m smiling. I have now learned to cover my face with my hand when someone tells me of the loss of a loved one or tragic accident, in case they interpret my grimace for a pathological grin.
It was in Hong Kong that I first encountered the sharp sucking in of breath through the teeth, which means, ‘that is never going to happen, but I don’t know how to tell you’. It is effective and worth learning to use. Now when I don’t want to say no directly, I make the air-sucking sound together with an over-exaggerated grimace, narrowing of the eyes, and slight shaking of the head.
It has been pointed out that I also make this sound when sipping my tea, but presumably people don’t take that as failed subtlety.
In the end the only way to learn is to get out there and try. Just show up, put your foot in your mouth, and get on with things. There will always be embarrassing moments, but in the end I think the instructions in the back of my parents’ phonebook were just about right.