Shortcut to Communication

In addition to the more obvious necessities of learning a language and observance of common customs, closing the gap in cultures requires assessing some other significant differences that usually lie in the background. Even after you’ve learned to communicate verbally with people, differences in our history, literature, art, and folklore ensure that confusion will continue. Though these things don’t constitute communication per se, they are the source material we use in communication, probably more than we’re conscious of.


Americans, for instance, load communication with pop culture references. We drop the names of characters from TV shows, recite lines from songs and movies, and use slang that evolves constantly. A Chinese student asked me last week why we do that. First, it’s our background material – when we reach back into the files to pull out something to describe a new situation or express a new thought, there’s a mountain of information in the entertainment category. Second, it’s a communicative shortcut. When we reference a story or a song, we quickly attach lots of meaning to an otherwise literal description. If you call someone a “Scrooge,” that instantly brings, not even a story, but the feelings that story evokes, to mind. Plus that’s easier than saying, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” (Though we owe Mr. Dickens our thanks for doing so!) These shortcuts also enable the speaker to quickly influence how he is perceived by his audience.


So… this background material provides shortcuts for communication. For people in the “communicate-to-another-culture” business, this is major. By learning the background culture of a country, we’ll be able to more accurately and efficiently express new ideas. Chinese culture for instance, is filled with reference with millennia-old stories that have evolved into bite-sized sayings that work into every day life. I have no idea how they learn all of these things – I have a three-inch-thick dictionary filled with nothing but these sayings. Easy for me to shrug off all that as superfluous, icing on the cake type learning – but there’s dormant communication in there.


For instance, I walked with T. past a restaurant yesterday called the “Qian Li Ma,” or “Thousand Li (half a kilometer) Horse.” Funny name for a restaurant. So T. explains to me that there’s a story about an emperor in the Qin dynasty (about 200 years before the birth of Christ), who had a minister named “Bo Le,” who was responsible for finding excellent horses for his army. Bo Le had the gift for identifying extraordinary horses, and the best was the “Qian Li Ma,” which could run a thousand li in the blink of an eye. Today the saying goes something like, “it takes a Bo Le to find a Qian Li Ma.” Talent is nothing without someone who discovers the talent. Great. Two days after I preached a message about training.

One Comment on “Shortcut to Communication”

  1. Tammy December 18, 2008 at 12:57 pm #

    I loved hearing this story about you and T. It is neat to hear how our cultures are alike just our language is different thanks to the tower of babbel.

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