There's a lot of power in understanding.

Speaking the same language

Sam’s superpower is speaking Spanish, but I can’t say I have the same gift. Five years of German classes didn’t leave a lasting impression, and besides, every German I’ve ever met already speaks impeccable English.

But his tale did remind me that even if the language is English, there are still a lot of ways to communicate and miscommunicate. Back when I worked at the mental hospital, there were several times when a talent for understanding different types of communication came in handy.

The language of &%*$@!

I usually worked on the locked admissions unit, since that was the most interesting. One fine morning, I arrived to find most of the staff were terrified. It seems an immense, hairy, tattooed biker was having some rough brain times and had dropped in the night before.

However, the night staff were convinced that he was seconds away from unleashing unspeakable mayhem; he was yelling and swearing, and nothing anyone said seemed to get through.

As the tallest on hand, and the guy who rode a tiny Suzuki to work sometimes, I was assigned to try and build some sort of rapport with this growling bear-man.

I said hello, and his response was a torrent of loud, appalling profanity. But I also noticed he wasn’t escalating. He didn’t make any sudden moves, stand up, make a fist, or even point at me. None of the physical signs of a threat, other than just being generally loud, huge, hairy and scary-looking. Hmm.

And after some thought, I realized it was a fairly normal greeting and a few questions, if you mentally edited out the swearing and ignored the volume. Maybe he was hard of hearing…?

I asked my colleagues to cover my rounds for a bit, and to excuse any overheard unprofessional language. I brought a couple of coffees and sat down to attempt a conversation.

As I suspected, thick layers of curse words were just this guy’s normal everyday language. I couldn’t match his appalling artistry with obscenity, but I did my best to speak the same language, and at last we found we could communicate.

He was astonished when I finally got across the idea that the swearing was scaring the other staff. That’s just how everyone spoke in his life, from work to his kitchen table. And yes, he was indeed &%*$@! hard of &%*$@! hearing, and had &%*$@! forgotten to &%*$@! bring his &%*$@! hearing aids.

I fetched some real coffee complete with caffeine (it had been a very rough night for him) and we began to make good progress. Turns out he was &%*$@! terrified too but really &%*$@! wanted some &%*$@! help with “this &%*$@! mental &%*$@!”.

I &%*$@! filled him in on what the &%*$@! to &%*$@! expect in this &%*$@! strange new &%*$@! environment, and acted as something of an &%*$@! interpreter for the rest of the staff and his psychiatrist until they started to catch on to his obscene dialect, and he learned to moderate his language just a little. He was able to get through the crisis and go home a few days later.

A few years later, my classic rock band was playing in a local bar. He recognized me and came up to shake my hand. “&%*$@! thanks, man! &%*$@!, you’re the only &%*$@! &%*$@! in that whole &%*$@! place that &%*$@! talked to me like a normal &%*$@! human and &%*$@! tried to &%*$@! help!”

Granny Mumbles

One Thursday, a tiny grandmother type lady arrived. In addition to some other issues, the psychiatrist was worried about suspected brain damage, maybe a stroke or something similar; she could only speak in a mumble that no one could understand, no matter how many times she repeated herself. She could understand what people said to her, but she couldn’t communicate back. We resorted to giving her note paper and a pen, but her handwriting was also pretty shaky.

She was pretty quiet and a little withdrawn on Friday, and didn’t try to talk much. Not being able to communicate is very stressful.

But on Saturday morning, some of her children and grandchildren came to visit. We were astonished when she joyfully greeted them with a long, animated series of mumbles, and… they answered back?

After talking with the family (who could speak perfectly normally) it turned out that mumbling was just… normal for her. It’s how she had always spoken. Her kids and grandkids could understand her easily. It wasn’t a new thing or some foreign language. Grandma just mumbles, and no one really thought it was unusual or important.

Once we cleared that up, we were able to start picking out words here and there in all the mumbles, and in a few days most of the staff knew enough mumble-ese to get by. She loved the attention, and some of us became quite good at understanding her.

Soon she was making progress on her actual issues and was able to go home. Other than the mumbling, she was a perfectly lucid and charming grandmother, and we sort of missed having her around.

Plus, for a few years after, mumble-ese was sort of a fun secret language among the staff who had worked with her.

Lessons learned

Of course, I’m not in the brain biz any more, and I can’t use fluent profanity or mumble-ese in my marketing or brand work. But working with mentally ill people did teach me some valuable lessons about communication.

Even if people seem to understand and speak standard English pretty well, you always have to pay close attention to make sure you’re speaking the same language. So be ready and able to adapt in small and large ways.

There’s a lot of power in understanding and communicating on the same level. You could even say that everyone has their own language or dialect.

You just need to use the right words.

Brian Wringer

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