More Than Words – March 2018
Training in London
More than words: Silence, presence and secret languages.
In March, my 9 year old son and I flew to London for a training in an international setting. It was named „More than words“ and was about finding ways of communicating with people without words, for example with people with whom we don’t share the same language. Some of the tasks were meant to be done in the city: listening to the sound of different districts and neighbourhoods, observing the body language of people there, and determining ways of communication without sharing the same language.
As a single mom, I had to bring my son to the training in London, and we performed the tasks in the city together. The first tour brought us to Tottenham. First of all, the buildings there spoke to us. They said, that the people there didn’t have too much money, and not so much space. Many of them were drying their clothes out of their windows. The shops there said, that many people there were immigrants, who wanted to preserve parts of their lifestyle in their new home: we saw lots of shops that made us feel like beeing in african or asian countries.
Soon after arriving in Tottenham, my son purposefully directed me to one of the centres of communication without words: the playground and sports area in the parc.
In that parc, there were different public sports facilities: a football field, a basketball court and some fitness devices. Two young adults were playing football, without talking to each other. My son wanted to play as well, so he moved closer and closer to them, until one of them kicked the ball in his direction, inviting him to play. They communicated perfectly without words.
Another young man was shooting hoops on the basketball court. He was very good at it. Some admirers stood by and watched him play. They as well communicated very well without words – he knew, that they admired him, and they knew, that he appreciated them watching.
In the fitness area, there were several different people using the fitness equipment. Very diverse people of different ages, from very young to quite old, different skin colors, singles and couples, men and women. Together, they performed an act of ballet: Without talking, they freed the fitness devices and changed from one to another in perfect harmony, sensing the wishes of the others. Specially two people, a couple, seemed to know each other for a very long time – they were in perfect harmony and matched perfectly. They had a routine they performed without talking at all. They always changed the devices at the same time, did the exercises in the same rythm. The communication between these people was just like a dance routine.
No wonder people, who work with refugees, often use sports as a means of coming together, getting into contact and achieving something together. Sport is one of the best, most efficient ways of communicating without words.
While we were in the parc, school finished, and the pupils came out of a school nearby. Many of them crossed the parc to go to the subway or to catch a bus. The girls were walking two by two, close together, talking quitly with one another. The boys were walking two by two as well – but talking very loudly, shouting all over the place, sometimes walking with great distance between them, expanding their conversation over half of the parc.
Even if I couldn’t understand their words, I could still read their body-language. And that language is gendered, influenced by gender roles. The girls were saying: “We better stick together and don’t take up too much space!” and „We‘d better not attract too much attention on us!”, while the boys were saying “I/We own this place!”.
Their behaviour told me a lot about the society they live in. I understood, that men and women are not equal, that men are allowed to take up way more space than women, and that they are taught from a very young age on, that they rule the world. Girls are taught to hold back, to be pleasant and to admire the boys. The society they live in must be fundamentally genderbiased.
Another presence that marked my son and me very much was the presence of Black people in London. Coming from Berlin/Germany, we were in awe. My son is Black, I am white. In Germany, even in Berlin, we are very often stared at. People keep asking themselves how we are related. My son gets stared at, touched without even asking and asked a lot about his Blackness. He was overwhelmed when we were in Brixton, waiting outside the subway for a friend. He was amazed by the great number of Black people that came out of the subway – they were the majority! That is an experience that he never makes in public german spaces (only in empowerment settings). He loved seeing so many Black people in the subway in general, and also finding them in very different professions in London. Their presence was very empowering to him.
The presence of Black people in London versus their presence in Berlin tells a lot about racism and postcolonial relations. For us foreigners, the situation in London seemed a bit better than in Berlin, but many housing areas still seemed quite segregated, which shows how both societies are still fundamentally structured by racism.
In Tottenham, we went into a little café. Inside, there were two men speaking an african language, two men speaking french, and two men speaking a slavic language. As they all spoke different languages at their tables, they were able to have a very intimate ambience while talking. My son and I spoke german, which seemed to be unusual to the others, since they looked quite a lot at us. But we, as well, had our intimate language. It still matters a lot, what language you speak – the reactions vary very much depending on what counts as « normal » in that area, and what prejudices people have about people speaking your language. In general, speaking french for instance provokes other reactions than speaking an african language in a public space. These reactions are racially biased. These biased reactions are a very powerful way of communicating without words – most of the microaggressions linked to racism and other forms of discrimination are exercised without saying a single word. Looks and body language are more than enough to be very clear about what a person thinks about someone else. As we get more an more concious about racism and discrimination in general, people often start taking care about the things they are saying – but we should focus as much on our general expression and bodylanguage. They are way more unconcious and direct ways of communicating and reflect what we really think, even if we don’t say it.
Body language and the tone of the voice are secret languages that also told me al lot about the people in that café in Tottenham. Even if I couldn’t understand what these pairs were saying, I still got to know a lot about them. First of all, that they had some relation to a country in which a different language was spoken. Their way of speaking, their voice, and their attitude, told me a lot about them : How they were feeling, a little about their character, and something about the relationship between them and their counterpart. I could also get some information about what kind of topics they were discussing, or at least, what the topic meant to them emotionally. For example, it was easy to tell, if they were discussing work topics, private topics, leisure topics or if they were fighting. It got very clear, if the topic was serious and very important to the person, if it was emotionally charged, or if it was a light topic.
Without words, we can understand very important things : emotions, relation and intentions. What’s lacking, is the concrete theoretical content. We maybe can’t discuss very theoretical issues without a common language. But we can use emotions, relation an our intentions to communicate in a very profound way. That means, that we need to get involved in a different way that what we mainly see as a professional relationship when we work with refugees for example. We need to go into a relation with them, show and share our emotions, and be clear in our intentions. On that basis, understanding will be easy. We also need to reflect the basis of our work and be very self-aware and self-scrutinizing about our own biases and prejudices. That is the foundation for going into an open, un-biased and true relation and communication.