Learning to communicate in Russia

Posted: Friday, February 25, 2005

Mary Helms

Living and Growing

Yesterday was a landmark day for me. Someone asked me for directions and I was able to give clear, concise directions (which they understood), and later when I was trying to find my way to a new place, I was able to ask for directions, understand what was said and follow those directions until I arrived where I needed to be. So what's the big deal about that? All this communication took place in Russian, a language so very different from my native English.

Sometimes I can hardly believe I'm really here in St. Petersburg, Russia. It feels almost surreal walking these ancient and historic streets, admiring the beautiful architecture, listening to sounds of cathedral bells mixed with traffic noises and the voices of so many people talking, talking, talking ... I catch snatches of conversations as I walk along:

"Are you sure you won't come with us?"

"Let's look in this shop."

"No, that's not what I meant!"

"Let's stop here for a cup of tea."

One of Webster's definitions for the word communicate is, "to express thoughts, feelings or information easily and effectively." Under ordinary circumstances, most of us feel quite at ease communicating; it's a skill we generally take for granted and give little thought to. However, here in St. Petersburg, I'm gaining a new respect for the art of communication. I am rarely with anyone who speaks English, and as I go about my day I must communicate my needs, desires, feelings and thoughts in a complex language that I am still struggling to make my own. And then, of course, there is the equally important need to understand what people are saying to me.

Speaking daily in a foreign language has made me extraordinarily aware of words and the way we use them to express ourselves. And, more to the point, I'm learning that effective communication is ever so much more than just words fashioned into grammatically correct sentences. It is a complex skill comprised of patience, active listening, and not only a desire and ability to express oneself, but perhaps more importantly, a desire to understand. Having a good sense of humor doesn't hurt either. Russian grammar is complex and an accent placed on the wrong syllable of a word can render it incomprehensible or change its meaning. I'm good at making mistakes, mostly minor, but sometimes real blunders. But my friends and I laugh as they correct me and the laughter takes the edge off any embarassment I might otherwise have felt and allows me to continue learning and growing, feeling supported by their kindness and generosity. Our laughter reminds me that good communication is also about sharing our love and compassion with one another.

The Psalmist wrote, "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord." (Psalms 19:14)

Communication at its very best is ideas molded and governed by spiritual qualities such as integrity, compassion, honesty, and kindness. When words are tempered by such qualities, even our most simple attempts to communicate become eloquent in their gentleness and honesty. One of my favorite authors, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote of communication, "When the heart speaks, however simple the words, its language is always acceptable to those who have hearts."

Russians express the same thought by saying, "when soul speaks to soul." But whatever words we choose to express ourselves, when they proceed from love, and are spoken with patience, integrity and laughter too, they will communicate all that really needs to be said.

• Marie Helm is a Christian Science Practitioner and member of the First Chruch of Christ Scientist, Juneau.

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