Miscommunications Abound, as does Forgiveness

This title describes perfectly, the existence of living with another culture.

Most people, it turns out, will forgive you for being human.  And nowhere is a person’s humanness so prominent, as during time spent with those from another culture.

Misunderstandings abound, and only a minority of these misunderstandings relate to conflict.  Most of them are just a complete mismatch of comprehension.

The funniest conversations I have with remote indigenous people here in Central Australia, who more often than not speak English as a third or fourth language, and for whom technology is useful but not necessarily used conventionally the way most of us might use it, are by telephone.

For example, yesterday my lovely friend Kenny, the grandfather of Mathew who I fostered a number of different times in previous years, and who still features regularly in my life now, as a young adult, called me.  I have just returned after three weeks away.  He has a mobile and it keeps him in touch with family who are flung far and wide across the Northern Territory and Western Australia while he’s forced to live in town for health reasons.  He grew up in remote communities and locations, and talks of walking for months at a time as a young man, which would have been in the 1950s or 1960s, across vast expanses of the Gibson and other Central Deserts.

The conversation went something like this:

Hello?
Aaaallllooooo!!
Oh, Hi Kenny! How are you?
I’m ‘ERE!
Where are you?
‘Ere!
Where?
Right ‘ere, I bin move, to (a hostel).
Oh really? Are you there now?
Nah! I’m ‘ere!
Where?
I bin walk down to grass, I’m sitting on grass! Come and see me!
Oh! So you are living at (the hostel), but right now you’re sitting on the grass?
Yeah! Come visit me!

He is one of the most delightful people I know, and it’s always a happy experience talking to him, even though we don’t always “get” each other.

I make regular mistakes during my encounters with people like Kenny, most of which I expect I don’t even know I’ve committed.  And they make regular mistakes with me.  Yet it’s okay, we don’t have to fully understand each other, to know that we like each other.

In my experience, forgiveness doesn’t come easily in my own culture.  It also doesn’t seem to come easily between indigenous people at times.  Perhaps this is because when we share cultural common ground with people, we make much stronger assumptions about the accuracy of our own interpretation of a person’s intentions without making any room for possibility of misunderstanding?

There is something truly refreshing about the experience of knowing Kenny, Mathew, and the hundreds of other people I know and like but don’t always understand.


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