Something miraculous happens when you meet a toddler – they’ll want to sit and talk your ear off, and their brain can only comprehend one question, on a predetermined loop: “But why?”.
This, my friends, is the power of shared language. I’m not talking about language in its nominal form, like English, Spanish, or Amharic. No, I’m talking about language in its inherent form. Curiosity, play, smiling and laughter, frowns and tones. All of this is considered language, and it all has an expectation.
For example, if I ask you a question, my voice will generally go up and trail off. I expect a general answer, meaning, one not borne of intense emotion. If you start shouting at me after my question, I’ll look a little shocked and scared. If you answer my question in a dulcet tone, I’ll look satisfied, or I might have a follow-up question. The expectation is that your energy matches my energy. This is how sales negotiations can go really right (or really wrong), how kids know when they’re pushing their teacher’s or parent’s buttons, and how doctors know how to use their calmest tone with a worried family member.
This linguistic expectation goes hand in hand with a societal expectation. When someone rings your doorbell, what do you do? If they try to give you a fast-paced sales pitch as you’re standing there, debating when to close the door in their face, what emotions come up? (I don’t know if you can tell, but this happens at least once a week in our neighborhood). So often we hear the following:
“Give them the benefit of the doubt”
“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”
“Oh, bless her heart”
This is a societal expectation: to expect the good in people, to see a person as a human being with a soul, or to connect on a deeper level. Depending on where you are in the world or what your environment is, the opposite expectation is to see a person as a resource, a cog, a number of hours, or a cold mathematical formula. A societal expectation can change, but the linguistic one does not. If you match a child’s question with unabashed rage, you’re going to be answered with a shocked little face. If you go to a business meeting full of upspeak when people are expecting you to sound like the expert on your speaking topic, you’ll be answered with classic disengagement techniques like fiddling on a phone, refusing eye contact, or leaving the room.
When you go into a meeting with a stranger, you rely on some semblance of societal expectations: the purpose of the meeting, the amount of preparation, what your desired outcome is. But conversation is spontaneous. It can quickly go a million different ways in a short amount of time… which is where linguistic expectations can work for you.
What shared language can you find with the person? What topics can you find in common, and how can you match their tone and energy?
After all, what binds us together can be so much stronger than what tears us apart. We all like to be valued, to be heard, and to be listened to. We like when questions come from a place of curiosity, instead of rapid-fire questions that are read off of an intake form. We have dreams, goals, and wishes, and we need each other to connect with and grow. Those tribal feelings of old still come out and demand a larger presence.
Quite honestly, it doesn’t matter if you speak English, Amharic, Urdu, or Klingon: what’s most important is how sensitive and willing you are to finding a shared language, no matter where you are.