Sunday, March 26, 2006

The terror of language

It is one thing to chat about cheese in the fromagerie and a totally different experience to comfort a distraught employee in an alien tongue. After six months, my French is adequate for everyday transactions but pitiful for true communication.

I had a situation this week where an important and respected employee was very unhappy. As I am in theory responsible for the overall well-being of the troops, I realized that the time had come for my first adult conversation in French.

Reviewing my humble French vocabulary, I hurriedly wrote down key phrases on a cheat sheet for my upcoming conversation. Words like désolé, confiance and jugement suddenly had a barbaric sound and near-complete lack of meaning.

In the conversation that followed, I felt very much like the wizard of Oz poking at a vast array of buttons and levers in the foolish hope that some combination of noises would create the desired response in the listener. The words I had in my heart seemed to have no connection with the noises coming out of my mouth.

And that was when the magic happened. Despite the inadequacy of the words, or maybe because of them, I suddenly realized that everything I was attempting to say so inarticulately had nonetheless been both communicated and understood.

Just the act of trying to be comforting in such a difficult situation had more eloquent than any words I could have come up with. Our confidence in words is misplaced. As always, it is the actions that speak more loudly.

- chris

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