*New (added December 15, 2011)
Please listen to this TED talk by Brene Brown about vulnerability and why some people have a strong sense of love and belonging. It is wise…heartwarming…and hilarious! I guarantee you will be happy you listened for 20 minutes.
OK, now back to my original post. When I wrote it last week, maybe I had an inkling of what Brown has been studying and personally exploring for years.
Our relationships with people begin with language, both body language and verbal language.
When I moved to Brussels to join my husband Paul, who was doing his Ph.D. studies in engineering there, he lived in a large house filled with students studying at a translation institution across the street. Unknown to me, he had instructed all of his friends in the house to speak only French with me.
Paul’s mother tongue was French. As for me, though I had taken French classes from Grades 6 through 13, plus one university course, my conversational skills were halting. In bilingual Brussels, where the two languages were French and Flemish, my everyday conversations with the locals and shopkeepers would be conducted in French. Paul wanted to encourage me to practice as much as possible.
Thus it was that during the three years when I spent intermittent weeks and months in Brussels, I spoke to all of our housemates in French. Paul only revealed when I was leaving that all of the translation students spoke much better English than my French. Undoubtedly, it helped me to practice speaking French with them, but it also limited the closeness of our relationships. I always felt I was speaking at the mental level of a 6-year-old.
Conversations have not only a language, but a depth. In Brussels, the French language itself limited the extent to which I could make friends. Yet even when two people who are fluent in the same language talk to each other, they often restrict themselves to certain topics of conversation. If my interaction with someone is limited to talking about the weather or daily news, our conversation will seldom venture beyond these topics. (Men will often use sports for small talk, while women might talk about kids or clothes.) It’s easy to get stuck in a comfortable “rut”: our casual friends belong in certain categories (whether we think about it consciously or not) and we never move beyond a limited way of knowing them.
If we never have the courage to venture into personal or controversial topics, we miss opportunities to turn acquaintances into friends, or to develop deeper relationships with our casual friends.
A few years ago, I read somewhere that the feature we find most attractive in others is vulnerability. In my experience this is true. It’s when we reveal our weaknesses, our doubts and our needs that we makes ourselves approachable. Think about it; when you love someone, isn’t it a mixture of their strengths and weaknesses that you love? You may admire a strong person, but is it easy to love someone who seems “perfect”? We love others because they mirror our own experience of being human, which includes a balance of light and darkness.
One of the most enriching experiences life offers, to me, is having a “surprise” encounter with someone where a conversation takes an unexpected turn. Suddenly, our relationship is deeper. This can happen in different ways:
- I reach out to a stranger. I might be at a professional event where I don’t know anyone, but before the scheduled presentation begins, I start a conversation with the stranger next to me. I used to find this hard to do, but with practice it gets easier. After all, it’s likely that the other person also wants to get to know others, but is shy or unsure what to say. Who knows where the conversation will lead? At worse, it will be superficial chit-chat that nevertheless makes the participants feel more at ease. At best, you will find someone who may help you professionally or even become a friend.
- I unexpectedly meet an acquaintance or casual friend in a coffee shop or some other public place. We start to make small talk, but something in our environment triggers the start of a more profound conversation. As the conversation continues to develop, we start to learn things about our casual friend that we never knew before. This will only happen if both people are willing to “linger” and aren’t in a rush to separate as soon as the requirements of social politeness are fulfilled.
- I accidentally get in touch with an old friend. (I love the way today’s online world allows this to happen!) We rekindle a friendship that has been dormant for a long time. We are still at ease with each other because of the closeness we had many years ago. Surprisingly, because of circumstances and our experiences during the intervening time, we become even closer than we were before.
Don’t be afraid to speak a more intimate language.