What Being In A Cross-Cultural Relationship Has Taught Me About Communication

couple in love
Wesley Balten

I arrived to Colombia in January of 2016 with very, very basic Spanish skills. Almost a year and a half later, and I still I have not (but really should have) taken a single Spanish class here. I have had to learn Spanish simply through listening, speaking, and unimaginable moments of frustration. I have always seemed to like to learn things the hard way.

Like many Americans who spend more than a few months in Colombia, I eventually found my way into a relationship with a Colombian man. I met my boyfriend about nine months into my experience here, much to the dismay of my independent, stubborn heart that always felt it wasn’t ready for that specific adventure. Now, I was faced with the opportunity to embark on a journey into my own soul, the most foreign of lands for the majority of human beings, and the tour guide was going to be in Spanish. What?

What has followed has transformed me, my heart, and the wiring of my brain in ways I never could have imagined. Through this relationship, I have learned a lot about myself and my partner, but most importantly, my eyes have been opened to the intricacies of human nature and the way we communicate.

It Should Be Okay to Ask for Clarification

Just because you speak the same language doesn’t mean you will always understand what your partner is saying. I believe that my boyfriend and I have excellent communication because we have had to be patient from the beginning. There will always be words in Spanish I don’t understand because they are very colloquial, and vice versa for him in English.

I have found that if we are arguing or having an intense discussion, I have stopped to ask, “Can you explain that in a different way, please?” Sometimes, I ask it because I genuinely don’t understand the way he worded the sentence and I want to be 100% sure I’m understanding what he is saying. Sometimes, however, I will admit to having asked it to be able to take a step back from the conversation for a second and to encourage him to do so as well to make sure what he is feeling is what he is saying.

He has never gotten angry or upset at this request, and I think because we are from two very different cultures and were raised in two different languages, we are both forced to try and understand things from the other’s point of view as opposed to just assuming that, “My partner knows what I’m talking about, I don’t need to explain myself further!”

I find this way of understanding very intriguing and I’ve tried to apply it to my relationships with other Americans now. I don’t automatically assume that just because we are from the same culture, speak the same language, and understand the same odd jokes that they will always understand what I’m saying and why. I don’t see any reason why couples who speak the same language can’t implement this into their communication. We all express ourselves in different ways and we forget to take into account the language of love, of the heart and soul.

It Should Also Be Okay to Make Mistakes

I know I say a lot of really dumb sounding things in Spanish. This is one of the biggest things they tell you when learning a foreign language – you can’t be scared to make mistakes. People are scared to practice the foreign language with a native speaker because they are scared they’re going to sound stupid or say something wrong. Well, yeah, that’s the idea!

I’m sure you said a lot of stupid things when you were learning English as a child, too, you just don’t remember them. How often do you say stupid things, still, as an adult? How many times have you accidentally mixed two words together, been at a loss for the word you’re searching for, or simply not been able to convey what you’re feeling in a way that makes the other person understand the way you want?

Humility seems to be crucial in any relationship, but being in a cross-cultural relationship provides no room for pride when it comes to language and making mistakes. I once was trying to tell my boyfriend how tall my best friend is and I accidently used the Spanish word for “fleas” instead of “inches” (“Steven is five foot nine fleas tall”). Another time, we were ordering coffee and I asked the barista for a cappuccino and pillow (the Spanish word for pillow is “almohada” and the delicious bread pastry they sell here is called “almojabana”). These are just a few examples of situations where I’ve felt really ridiculous, but I don’t care. I can’t care.

I have had to learn to let go of my pride and understand that I will continue to make mistakes for the rest of my life, whether it is in Spanish, English, or any other language. And, because I have had to let go of this pride, it is not present in our relationship. Because we have had to learn to forgive each other for, and laugh at, simple mistakes in each other’s languages, we are more open to forgiving each other for our mistakes in love as well.

Not Knowing What to Say is Often Helpful

In the beginning of this relationship, I would often get too frustrated at not being able to tell a long story with minute details like I wanted and would shut down and say, “I don’t want to explain.” That’s my personality. I want it all or nothing, including the ability to explain things in the way I want to. But, you know what? Me not being able to express myself exactly how I want to is not the problem. The problem is that I feel like I have to.

I want to explain everything, rapidly and in detail, and I want to ask follow up questions to make sure he understands every aspect of what I’ve just said. However, because I am constantly searching for the correct words to use, I have been forced to slow down, think about what I want to say, and choose the words carefully. This reminds me of my parents telling me to choose my words wisely as a child, and I don’t really understand why we forget that as adults. Those few seconds of pause often, I believe, make a huge difference in the way I communicate with my partner and, now, other people I interact with.

It is so easy to rapid-fire words in a heated emotional exchange without taking a moment to pause and really assess whether or not those are the words you really mean to say. While Spanish flows a lot easier for me now than it did a year ago, I still don’t have the ability to rapid-fire full, complex sentences without first taking a fraction of a second to think about what I’m saying.

My partner and I have both had to be conscious of the words we are using, leading me to believe that sometimes not knowing the words is helpful. So often we seem to reach for something to say, a way to express the frustration, anger, or hurt we are feeling in a relationship and we cling to the first word that comes to mind. But, is that the right word? Is that what you really want to say? You are not asking yourself first before presenting it to your partner, and this causes dissonance and even more pain. This all really boils down to “think before you speak,” and I suppose in a foreign language you really have no other choice.

Actions Really Do Speak Louder Than Words

In learning to speak another language, I have had to really learn how to pick up on non-verbal cues. I first noticed then when someone pointed out that I was staring at their mouth the entire time they were talking. Assuming it was just a weird American thing, they didn’t say anything until they noticed I didn’t do that with other foreigners who were speaking English. What I was trying to do was watch the way a person’s mouth movements to understand what they were saying because I couldn’t pick up on it just by listening. I needed the visual cues too.

I believe this should carry over into relationships as well, and I also believe it is part of the success (thus far, I don’t want to jinx anything) of my relationship with my Colombian boyfriend. I have noticed recently that we’ve reached the point where a simple look conveys the situation sufficiently. I know he’s had to do the same – really watch, learn and understand my actions and reactions to assess situations on a deeper level than just words. It doesn’t matter what language we speak we can all learn how to pick up on human body language enough to understand people from all over the world.

How often we seem to rely on words to fluff or mask our true emotions when our essence speaks volumes. I could explain in detail exactly how I am feeling in Spanish and my boyfriend would understand me no more than he does by stopping to look at the way my face is lit up in excitement or furrowed in frustration. We have had to learn to listen and speak with our hearts rather than relying on cheap words to hide the true emotions. Words will fail you in any language. How you are, who you are, that’s what people see, and what they feel is your energy and the way you treat them. This is true in relationships, too, we just aren’t taught to rely on those physical, energy-filled cues as much as we are taught to react quickly and irrationally to words.

Our Essence is Never Spoken in Words

My boyfriend understands and perceives me as I am, through the ways I present myself and the way I treat him and others. We, as an entire civilization, have tried to change the way people perceive us by swaying them with our words, forgetting that our essence speaks volumes. I know my partner, after many months of letting this concept sink in, doesn’t care nearly as much about my words as he does my heart and my actions.

Loving is hard, and I fully believe that is because of the way human communication has evolved. Loving is like speaking a foreign language, except we are never taught how. We are required to learn Spanish, French, maybe even Russian in school, but we are never even taught what love sounds like until we hear it ourselves for the first time in the heart of another person. So, when we aren’t able to speak the language, we get frustrated and scared and we assume it’s not for us.

We forget that, sometimes, even though we may speak the same language as our partner, whether it be fluent or through sometimes broken sentences, that our hearts don’t speak in words. Our hearts require stillness and silence to feel the weight of what you’re presenting it with. Our hearts require patience as we learn the complexity of another person and ourselves.

If there is anything that I have learned from being in a cross-cultural relationship, it is that patience, understanding, and an eagerness to present yourself in the most authentic way possible is crucial in opening clear channels of communication. I have learned that this patience and understanding is also crucial in establishing a global community rooted in love and not in the empty words that serve nobody else but the tongue of the person speaking them. But, most of all, I have learned that love has no language, and that the quicker humanity understands that, the quicker we will begin to understand each other. TC mark

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