Bridging the Cultural Communication Divide

by Sharell शारेल on June 8, 2011

in Culture Shock in India

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Recently, a reader wrote to me upset over the way her Indian boyfriend’s family communicated. She was particularly bothered by how her boyfriend and his family continue to speak in their own language, which she can’t understand, in front of her. She wanted to know how I coped with something like that, and suggested I write a blog post about it.

Here’s a summary of my complicated situation. While my husband’s parents can’t speak English, his siblings all can. The family also speaks their native language, Oriya. This gives rise to all of the following happening when I’m present. My mother in law will usually speak to her children in Oriya and to me in Hindi. A conversation where everyone is involved will usually be in Hindi. The children (my husband and his siblings) will usually speak amongst themselves in Hindi. Everyone who speaks English will usually speak to me in English. My father in law did attempt to speak to me in English once, and my sister in law laughed at him when he got it all wrong.

As you can probably imagine, it gets very confusing for me. It’s a big family, and when everyone gets together there’s a lot of talking going on all at once. Sometimes I just sit back in a daze.

Something that it’s made me realise, is how much we unconsciously rely on understanding what’s being said and what’s going on around us in order to feel comfortable. There can be conversations taking place that I know don’t involve me, and are irrelevant to me, but I want to understand them anyway. The fact that I don’t understand them makes me feel kind of left out at times — and even a bit paranoid.

Nevertheless, I don’t really resent anyone for talking in their own language when they could talk in English.

The reason is because I’m also “guilty” of doing exactly the same thing. I talk in English to my husband, even when my parents in law are present, when I could talk in Hindi. I do it because it’s easier to express myself properly and it’s habit. The words flow, and it feels normal to speak in English. Sometimes I become aware that my mother in law wants to understand what we’re saying and then I feel bad, even though we’re only talking about something trivial that wouldn’t interest her.

All this has also made me realise that it’s natural to talk in the language that you’re most comfortable with. And that it’s easy to overlook that others might be feeling excluded, even if you’re talking about something irrelevant.

The fact that I can’t converse deeply with my parents in law because of the language barrier has its good and bad points. I realise it probably helped me escape from the usual “Indian interrogation” when I first met them. Instead of asking me millions of questions, my mother in law simply got out the family photo for me to look at.

Yet, it left me at a major loss as to how to establish a rapport with them. Usually this is done through conversation, but I had to rely mostly on gestures and mundane Hindi. My mother law and I did bond in the kitchen, and I must’ve done somethings right because my inlaws always want me to visit. They think it’s fun when I’m around and everyone is laughing.

It makes me sad though, that I can’t have an in depth conversation with parents in law. And I get frustrated when I want to tell them things but don’t know how. There are so many questions I’d love to ask them, so many things I’d love to find out their thoughts about. There will always be that level of mystery between us. But as my husband says, maybe it’s for the best! I can be blissfully ignorant and untroubled by so many things.

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© 2011, Diary of a White Indian Housewife. All rights reserved. Do not copy and reproduce text or images without permission.

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{ 278 comments… read them below or add one }

veeeeeh July 2, 2011 at 3:19 am

Prasad,

This is abhorrent behavior, and you have definitely crossed your line

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Vikas July 2, 2011 at 3:41 am

I can’t understand why Sharell doesn’t ban him from the blog.
He seems to have escaped from an institution.He needs urgent treatment!
I feel for the people who are around him in real life.I can only pray that they will be safe and no harm shall be done!

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Sharell July 2, 2011 at 11:42 am

Done now. I already deleted some of his rude comments and warned him. All this happens overnight when I’m not around. :-( Im sorry….

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Mohit Gupta July 2, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Sharell ,

Thanks !

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Mohit Gupta July 2, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Vikas ,

He suffers from Highest Degree of Self-Hatred.His mentality is like a suicide bomber who doesn’t care of his life.So you can’t stop a suicide bomber by showing him the threat of his life.Similarly He doesn’t respect himself or his mother or any family member , so there is no way he can respect family of other person.Its all a fruitless exercise to request him not to abuse..

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wikitheeks July 2, 2011 at 3:44 am

@Veeeh, “And its strange in this matrix, Extreme Left, Extreme right are clubbed together as ideologies with high societal control focus”

What do you find strange about that?

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veeeeeh July 2, 2011 at 5:09 am

@Wiki
both of them are at loggerheads, even in the Blog comments. Yet both ideologies along with Fascism/ dictatorship is all about societal control at the cost o the individual freedom.

I find it strange that they both fight on the mode of control on the society

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wikitheeks July 2, 2011 at 7:44 am

In the US those on the political “right” say that they are for individual freedom and “liberty” because they don’t want their taxes going to help other people in the form of “welfare”. They feel that’s “stealing” from the have’s to give to the “have nots”.

However when it comes to social behaviour they want everyone to conform to a certain, usually heteronormative, standard. And they want to have the “freedom” to say anything about homosexuals or anybody else that they don’t like without censor – hence “freedom of speech”.

The “left” on the other hand usually supports government taxes going to welfare and therefore wishes to control tax payers in that way, but when it comes to social behaviour they are all about people being free to behave in any manner they wish, HOWEVER, they tend to censor people for expressing poltically incorrect views about minorities, homosexuals, etc.

So as long as you’re opinions are politically correct regarding minorities and gay marriage, you can have all the free speech you want. But step out of line and call someone a fag or a n*gger, and if you are a heterosexual white person, THE LEFT WILL CENSOR YOU.

However if you are a gay black person might get away with it.

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prasad July 2, 2011 at 9:19 am

Again, words of wisdom from one smart woman who can think straight.

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veeeeeh July 2, 2011 at 9:25 pm

@ Wiki
Actually Left in US is not extreme Left (Communism) oriented. Its more liberal social Agenda and wealth distribution, more like European socialists.
Right is less government intervention, but subtly they are in favor of Oligarchy with their mantra being wealth creation.
Both approaches will appeal to different class of people depending on their value system.

But I am really surprised at the amount of brain washing that happens in the name of individual control, that the “Joe the Plumber” who is definitely does not belong to the richest 20% and is yet more worried about their taxation, and not things that matter to him like healthcare or welfare policies.

This is another example where Individual centric policies are used to get to the power.

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wikitheeks July 3, 2011 at 12:46 am

I don’t know how welfare policy would affect an employed male plumber. It is usually single mothers who get welfare in the form of WIC, foodstamps, medicaid, etc. And that is supplied to them from the taxes that Joe the plumber types pay.

The working middle class really needs its own lobby. Middle class is not representative either by the wealthy or the poor. The working middle class is what supports both the wealthy and the poor.

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Amit Desai July 2, 2011 at 11:27 am

Individualism is the opposite. It imposes individual control at the cost of societal and state control. Pure individualism, in its essence, is pure anarchism. Anarchism (or any of its variant/branch) is a stateless, society-less condition.

So when you talk about individual right and freedom, the responsibility of defining and giving rights is solely on the individual as there is no societal and governmental control. And since every individual is going to define his/her own rights, my freedom/rights are going to conflict with yours.

If we use any consensus, we are moving toward a society and state control because society and state both work on collective beliefs, opinions, traditions and/or laws, collectively known as ‘consensus’. With in one society or state, there may be more consensus if there are different groups each of which function as a separate state or society within a larger society. Plus individual control greatly overlap with societal control in practice. No society is purely individualistic just as no society is purely societal or purely state obedient.

For example, humanitarianism or non-violence, in an individualistic world, still enforces a societal or state control that preaches a common collective opinion defined and regulated by society or state. At the same time, forming a consensus, in a non-individualistic world, still encourages some individual freedom.

Both societal control or individual control are used to train masses and control their minds to achieve a universal control as defined and regulated by the respective schools of thoughts.

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Mohit Gupta July 2, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Correct ,

Individualism simply can’t exist in today’s world because then at every step of life , there will be confrontation with either other individuals or organisations.

There is a rule a drive left in India.This is not an Individual choice but a Governmental or Societal Control Even if you believe in highest degree of individualism , you can’t drive on right.

There is a rule to come at office at 9:00 AM.Can any individual define which time will he come?Yes some companies provide flexibility but then that is also controlled by authorities.

Whole Idea of Individual Control is propagated by Individuals who are unable to cope with the “Rules & Regulations” and name their inefficiency to bring discipline in life as INDIVIDUALISM.

I think best system will be when you are free to follow/not follow the directions laid out by authorities , if they are of personal matter(only if it does’t invade freedom and dignity of other individual) and are strictly supposed to follow rules , which concerns society and Nation at large.

Flexibility of discussion about the pros and cons of “Rules & Regulation” should always be there.

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veeeeeh July 2, 2011 at 8:46 pm

I absolutely agree Amit. Unfortunately Man is a social animal and can’t live alone. Moreover, nature does not create everyone equal.
And the power asserts control by propagating idea of either complying with the state or society enforced controls or giving a high feel to the individual and a false belief that he is in control.
A true Individualistic anarchy does not exist anywhere , and will not exist as long as the state exists.
If you look at America, its founding principle is based on the Individual freedom and choice. That is one reason that has been used by the ruling class as an argument against say universal healthcare in America. They want Individual to choose.
The individual’s freedom ends when others freedom is affected by the individual actions.
I am aware that the Purely individual centric society is possible only in Utopia.
But I am not in favor of the high societal control in any form at the cost of individual’s right to choose.

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Mohit Gupta July 2, 2011 at 9:52 am

Prasad ,

This is the best I can expect from a guy who calls his mother a Bitch.
I can but don’t want to stoop to your level.I can very well hurl abuses in Hindi and English so that your eyes and ears start bleeding.

But its better not to mess with a Mental Case like you.You are not even worth for my abuses.

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Mohit Gupta July 2, 2011 at 10:30 am

Prasad ,

One More thing I want to tell you !

Its very easy for anyone to say that your mother is a liberal whore and you was born out of an lusty affair with a jerk.But I WON’T Say ! Because I respect mothers..

Its very easy for me to say that to bring your frustration to the minimum level because of failure in getting a white girl , you forcibly make love with your sisters daily.But I WON’T say that ! Because I respect sisters..

Its very easy for me to say that u was born when your Grandmother was fcuked by your father.But I WON’T say that.Because I respect fathers and Grandmothers.

Its very easy for me to say that you make love in group with your mother , sisters and grandmother and your father makes CD of these and sell in the market.But I WONT say that because , I respect FAMILY.

I am sure if you would have said what you have typed here , at least one person from this world would have got Moksha.

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jay August 31, 2013 at 5:21 pm

My fiance speaks very limited English and all of it broken sentences. I speak no other language other than English. And his friends from his country speak limited English just like him.

I feel that you don’t need a really rich vocabulary to share ideas and thoughts. I still completely GET what he and all his friends say.

In my own special case, it so far, has worked out for the best. I had intimacy neurosis that ended all relationships in a few months. Here I don’t feel ‘intruded’ on by probing Q&A, because there is no Q&A. And I simply take each day as it comes.

There are times when I want to ask him stuff that is important to me and I want to be reassured by him, like if he is having ‘second thoughts’ about us, but he does not answer because he simply cannot understand what I am saying.

I honestly feel that all relationships are destiny, and in particular our kind of international relationships. So I kind of have a fatalistic attitude: whatever has to be will be.

Yes, the gap in communication is hard at times. But there are advantages to it and there are disadvantages to it. I try to focus on the positive. Why worry about what you cannot change. Just enjoy and make the most of what you have.
I think non verbal cues, and even unspoken good intentions communicate themselves. Kindness and consideration transcend language barriers.

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jay August 31, 2013 at 5:25 pm

Sharell, are these your in laws? All women are absolutely lovely, but Oriya women have a certain sweetness to them. Big hug to your mom in law from me.

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Sharell शारेल August 31, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Yes, that’s them. Bless them.

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