I never expected to get a full-blown lesson in communication styles that evening.
It was late. My older brother Scott and I were sitting in the miniscule living room of our Italian relatives in the little mountain town of Cansano. My brother didn’t speak any Italian, and my uncle and his daughter spoke no English. I was acting as interpreter as my uncle and his daughter had a discussion about faith. My relatives are Catholics, and my brother and I are Protestants.
Clashing Points of View
As my uncle made a point, in typical Italian fashion, he stated his words emphatically. This elicited a loud retort from his daughter. My brother asked me quietly what they were saying, and I told him.
“They’re debating whether faith or works is more important in achieving salvation,” I calmly told him.
“Tell them I feel that you can only know God through faith,” he said.
I broke into the yelling match between my uncle and his daughter by yelling in Italian, “Aspetta! Scott ha detto che…” (“Wait! Scott said that…”) The two combatants paused a moment in their yelling to listen to me. Then they responded to me in a loud voice. We had a few sentences interchange speaking loudly, which I then interpreted to Scott in a quiet voice.
Anger or Passion?
As the discussion continued, my uncle seemed to get more and more angry at his daughter. They both became red in the face from yelling. Each time I turned to Scott, however, I spoke in quiet, measured tones. At one point my uncle was in the midst of yelling something at his daughter, but turned in mid-thought to say something to Scott, imitating me by speaking quietly to him.
I suddenly realized that every time I said something to the relatives I had to yell in Italian, but everything that went between my brother and me in English was stated in calm, relaxed tones.
The differences in communication styles struck me head on.
My relatives appeared to be at each other’s throats in the discussion. But after we finished, they immediately changed their demeanor toward each other. In fact, they acted as if they had never had any disagreement. My cousin kissed my uncle good night and went cheerfully to bed. I thought that, if I had a yelling match with my father, we would not transition so smoothly. There would be a cooling off period before we treated each other normally again.
Italians communicate their ideas passionately, and expect you to be passionate about what you care about. Many Americans, however, are more intellectual and debate issues calmly.
When I speak Italian, I feel like I have to use my hands to gesture while I’m speaking and the words are much more inflected than when I’m speaking English.
As an interpreter, I felt a little like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one moment yelling to interrupt the flow of Italian conversation, then transforming into a calm analyst of ideas in English.
At one point in the lively discussion, we all noticed the two communication styles at the same time and simultaneously cracked up!
Although I know there are many Americans who express their ideas with loud voices and passion, the above experiences happened all the time in Italy. The use of hand gestures and loud expressions of opinion are necessary to get your points across.
What's your communication style? Do you think it's more dictated by culture or personality?
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