Let’s play a word response game. I’ll say a word, you say what comes to mind. Ready?
I’m guessing there are a plethora of responses being blurted at computer screens now. Or at least you’re thinking them! Babel – what is it? Someone might be thinking about the Dutch footballer Ryan Babel’s recent return to Ajax. Someone else might be thinking of the 2006 Brad Pitt film. Someone else may be listening to Mumford & Son’s latest album by that title. Someone else may be thinking about the theatrical adaptation that flopped. Someone might be thinking of a magical translation fish that lives in Douglas Adam’s novels. (Any other cultural references out there?)
Of course, there’s also the biblical Babel. The Genesis story that reminds us how sometimes people will not always be able to communicate the way they might want to.
“Babel” right now makes me think of a recent piece of work. I’m part of a team that’s developing liturgies for a rather significant meeting for the PWRDF, a Global RoundTable. Participants will include PWRDF partners from around the globe, Board members, Diocesan network members, and staff. So we’re aiming for good, encompassing worship. Our liturgies should embrace the intention of the meeting, of the PWRDF, of the partners; they should be uplifting and dedicated, relevant and fitting. They should reflect the global perspectives that we have learned in past roundtable meetings and celebrate what is being brought to this meeting. And they should also recognise that not all PWRDF partners are Christian. No problem, right? Easy-peesy. (?!)
And just to add to the fun, let’s throw in the language issue. The man I’m working with is an Afro-Brasilian Condamblé priest from Rio de Janeiro. English is NOT his first language, nor his second (I think it’s his fifth?) While I have studied languages, it’s been a long time since I’ve used them – I am certainly not a polyglot. Welcome to our ‘Babel.’
So we had to find a happy medium, or at least somewhere we could communicate. So a pseudo-Spanish it is! My Spanish is peppered with some French and Italian; his is based more out of Brasilian Portuguese. It’s been awkward at times, but it’s also fun. We’ve had a few laughs as there have been some ‘lost in translation’ moments, there have been some delays as one (or both) of us scrambles to the dictionary to find a translation.
I think what makes this experience good, aside from all of the challenges, is that it is of God and for God – and to give glory to God through worship is a delight.
The experience has also been good because we are both making an intentional effort. We know that good work can happen if we try a little harder than normal. We accept that good communication needs careful attention.
It’s always impressive to see when people are willing to make an effort in order to communicate well. I’ve sadly seen too many times where people are not willing to do just that, though – even without adding the challenge of multiple languages. Miscommunication can be a big problem when it happens, and it can lead to bigger problems down the road. Sometimes people make inaccurate assumptions about what is being said, or presume they know the unspoken intentions behind someone’s words. Some people talk over others, some people simply refuse to listen to a differing opinion. People may triangulate (talking to a third party without talking directly is seldom helpful), or avoidance of certain topics or of any communication (the proverbial elephant in the room or the silent treatment); people make excuses or randomly blame someone or something else.
We all know that communication is not easy. In my experience, I know there have been times when I have said the wrong word, or put a thought into a sentence that doesn’t actually convey what I mean. I know I have done this in person, over the phone, and in writing. Especially in written communications, where the medium does not allow for intonation, misunderstandings can happen. Even in one language, there can be a Babel experience.
When I find myself in experiences like this, I try to make sure that what is being said is what is being heard. I’ve paused conversations sometimes to make sure I’m hearing things correctly – I’d rather do that than carry on into misunderstanding. I try to tread gently in difficulty situations to ensure that my words will not be hurtful; that my message will be received as I intended. I’ve discovered it can sometimes be much better to engage in a potentially awkward conversation around clarification rather than to let something snowball in error into a great tension.
I try to communicate myself well, and presume that others are making the same effort. I presume that everyone communicating with me has the best of intentions, and a desire to effective and productive conversation. I do this because I am a Christian, because my faith challenges me to treat others as I wish to be treated. This isn’t always easy, but then again, neither is being a follower of Christ. Making the extra effort of careful attention to words is worth it in the long run, when we can work to avoid miscommunications. And we can delight than when we’re trying to communicate a message that glorifies God, we know that it will get through the confusion of a Babel – sometimes despite out meagre words!