When words get in the way of communication

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

"Can you help me ta bao a cheng tng from the food court?" I asked my husband M, who was heading to Nex mall to run errands.

"A what?" the Canadian asked.

"The Chinese dessert", I said. "The one Gong Gong cooks sometimes."

I get a blank look.

"You know, the one with white fungus and gingko nuts," I said in frustration. "We always have it at Adam Road hawker centre."

"Ok, got it!" He finally answers, grabbing his wallet and heading out the door.

He returns with a chendol.

Such misunderstandings are not uncommon in our cross-cultural household, which recently expanded to include a domestic helper from the Philippines.

When M wanted to use the sink as she was washing the dishes one afternoon, he asked her if he could "jump in there for a second".

"Where you want to jump sir?" she asked, looking quite perplexed.

I piped in: "Aiyah, he wants to use the sink lah. Move can?"

This, when three of us each speak a version of the same language.

So, when we met another couple for lunch recently - a Brit from Yorkshire and his Japanese wife - I just could not fathom how they made their relationship work. He was fluent only in his native tongue, she seemed to speak only a smattering of English.

Nevertheless, they looked to be in animated conversation.

At one point, she gestured to the waiter and her husband immediately asked him for some ice for her water - no words exchanged.

Midway through eating her cheesecake, she glanced over at his brownie. He pushed it towards her and they both giggled, holding hands beneath the table. Their three-month-old baby lay in a pram next to them. When he cried, they effortlessly slid into their respective roles, taking turns to burp and feed him. It was almost telepathic. (M and I, on the other hand, look like we're trying to juggle a hot potato when we pass our three-month-old to each other.)

After lunch, the Englishman struggled in pidgin Japanese to tell her that he had spied a parrot during a cycling trip that morning. He ended up Googling an image of the bird on his mobile phone.

"Huh, like that also can?" I whispered to M incredulously.

But my uncle, too, has made things work with his Vietnamese bride whom he has been married to for close to a decade. They both spoke only rudimentary Mandarin when they first met, and this became the basis of their communication. I remember that he once told me that he thought his prior relationship had talked itself to death.

Could language barriers be a good thing for relationships? The well-known relationship guru Dr John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, has been quoted calling the notion that communication and conflict resolution are the keys to a successful long-term relationship "the biggest myth of all".

Most couples, he found, have the same problems, after 10, 20, even 30 years of marriage, as they did when they first started dating. This means that their problems are never "solved" - they learn to accept and live with them instead.

Language and cultural differences, in many cases, act as a signal to the couple to expect differences from the start. As a result, many end up being more open to accepting and working around them. Having to make an extra effort to explain themselves or observe their partner's body language and facial expressions may also mean that cross-cultural couples end up with a better understanding of each other.

In other words, they learn that the vulgarity uttered by their significant other may actually mean 'I love you'."

Another form of relationship therapy, known as Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, hones in on facial expressions, body language and tone to try to discover the true emotions that underlie a couple's words.

Its co-developer Dr Sue Johnson, professor at the University of Ottawa, found that distressed couples get into dreadful power struggles over who's right and who's wrong, constantly combing through what exactly happened. They get caught in what experts call "the content tube".

I've gone down that tube before - in a relationship in my early 20s that lasted a tumultuous four years. We were soul mates linked by a compulsive need to understand and be understood. We talked everything out and spent the rest of the time writing poems, or drawing each other. It was ridiculous.

Our dust-ups were also draining. We scrutinised issues in phone conversations that spanned hours. He'd say something mean out of anger, I'd retaliate. Concerns were brought up, then worked through over and over. We ended up burnt-out, and thankfully, eventually broke up.

All too often, it is the words that you get caught up in.

Misunderstandings happen all the time - that's not what hampers relationships. The killer is the inability to act on and understand the true emotions that underlie the words. The actual words are secondary.

The chendol wasn't so important, it was that M went off to get me a dessert that mattered. The right intent was there, just not the white fungus.

limjess@sph.com.sg

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