While traveling through East Asia recently, there were so many times when I wanted to communicate good. But I'd immediately come up against my own limitations. This is no surprise; my facility with Korean and Indonesian stops after basic greetings. My Chinese is only a bit better.
Using A Universal Approach
But I found I could communicate through my eyes and facial expression, often transcending my own limitations. I focused on what I could communicate – warmth, care, connection. I paid attention to my resting face. Does it invite or turn away? Does it communicate good?
Being abroad always sharpens my awareness of my nonverbal communication. Understanding the power of my body and facial language proves useful within cross-cultural contexts, for sure. But it is also quite helpful in my daily life in as I interact with people who are much like me. The subtleties matter.
I confess, how often I forget this! Personally, I find self-awareness and being truly present – a value highly prized in a number of approaches to life – a constant challenge. How easy it is to default to autopilot!
I realized many times during this most recent trip I can choose what to focus on. I could get discouraged by what I wasn’t able to express because of language limitations. Or I could choose to use the means I had available to me to communicate good, peace, love, acceptance, and graciousness. I realized I could be an ambassador for my country – and for Jesus, whom I follow – through my eyes.
It may seem like a simple thing. But it works.
A Few Caveats
I understand that in some countries looking directly into the eyes of another may not be considered polite. And doing so across genders may communicate the wrong message. So I find most of my connections are with women on purpose.
What I intend to express to them through my eyes is, “We have something in common. We are humans. And we are women. We may not speak the same language, but we share something very deep, especially as women.”
And, even more: “I am not so different from you. Behind my blue-eyed exterior is a heart that strives for truth, hope and love. I am one who seeks to love and be loved, know and be known. We share this desire.” This is the message I want to convey. This is how I communicate good.
Of course, communication of warmth through the eyes is usually accompanied by a smile, whether slight or large. I adjust it to the situation. Again, smiles can communicate different messages depending upon the culture. I try to keep this in mind. But still, I realize a smile can open the doors to many hearts.
A Moment Where It Mattered
While waiting at the airport in Surabaya, Indonesia, I caught the eyes of a girl six or seven years old, as well as her rambunctious little brother. The women – including the little girl – all wear hijab. I used my eyes a lot with these children, playing hide and seek, communicating surprise, warmth and surprise. Smiles broke out. The mother and grandmother seemed to enjoy the interplay. The mother spoke a bit of English. Through smatterings of English and Indonesian, I found out they are all on their way home to East Kalimantan (a rather remote place in Indonesia). We took pictures and selfies and enjoyed the fun. Cultures were bridged through eyes, smiles and, of course, children!
How You Can Apply These Ideas
When you travel abroad next time, especially if you don’t know the language of the host country, practice speaking peace and warmth with your eyes. Pay greater attention to your body language and consider what it communicates. Listen and observe well. That heightened awareness may be your best ally when crossing cultures.