Before and after WordCamp Whistler 2009 in Whistler, BC, Canada, I took advantage of the good graces and lovely home of Glenda Watson Hyatt of Do It Myself Blog (@GlendaWH) and her husband, Darrell Hyatt of Enabling Abilities to Appear in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Spending time with Glenda and Darrell is filled with laughter and fun, as well as an education. It is also a deeply intense learning experience for all of us. Glenda has coined our visit as WordCamp Hyatt.
As many of you know, Glenda suffers from Cerebral Palsy which leaves her tiny body slightly twisted, communicating with a strong speech impediment. She was labeled “non-verbal” a long time ago, a label her family and friends dispute. Within a few minutes I was able to learn Glenda-ish, her name for her personal language and enunciation, though at first the failure to understand sent us to the computer for her to type out the words to help me understand. Her husband also helps translates, but within a short time, our dependence upon him and the computer shrank.
Our time together reminded me of my own struggles to communicate.
The Freedom in Freedom of Speech
As a child, I was hit by a truck while crossing the street to the awaiting school bus. The traumatic brain injuries left me with some learning disabilities and speech impediments that I struggled for years to overcome, hiding them from the world. In the privacy of my childhood bedroom, I practiced enunciating, struggling to conquer hard consonants, determined to find a way to talk to people without stumbling.
Later, when I moved to Israel, I found myself surrounded by languages I didn’t understand, bringing back those childhood fears of humiliation and the inability to communicate. I felt so inadequate and insecure because I just couldn’t talk to people.
Hebrew and Russian speakers surrounded me, speaking only a few words of English, if any. I’d go into a store for groceries and struggle desperately to explain the difference between sliced or shredded cheese. At first, I’d end up walking away with the opposite of what I thought I was describing, embarrassed I couldn’t explain the simple difference between sliced and shredded cheese or buying a simple bed sheet. Once I learned the correct mime hand motions for buying cheese (slicing one hand onto the other in a chopping motion and dragging the finger downward in a clawing motion for shredded), my success ratio improved until my speech abilities caught up.
I’d walk up to the check out counter, envious of the customer’s ability to chat with others standing in line, babbling about the weather, politics, news, and state of food prices. Eager to not frustrate the clerk and make my check out experience faster, I’d memorized all the possible questions they could ask me as I checked out such as “Paper or plastic,” “cash, debit, or credit card,” “how do you want to pay,” and “do you need help carrying this out.” If they deviated from these, I was lost, helpless to understand what they were asking, without the words to answer even if I understood what they were saying.
I threw myself hard into learning Hebrew, impatient at myself and my teachers’ inability to get past the most basic of language skills. I was learning the alphabet and formulate the structure of a sentence, not the important conversational elements I needed to survive. The alphabet doesn’t help you much when you can’t spell or know the words to spell when it comes to shopping. I needed to learn how to find and buy food, stamps, clothing, and pay my bills in a language I desperately needed to make my own, and it was just taking too long. Life was passing me by while I struggled to just ask “How much is this?”
When I started teaching English to locals, I made a point to teach the basic language of survival first. Sentence structure and alphabets could wait. It was more important for them to know how to respond to “How are you?” and know how to buy bread and cheese than spell them.
After a year and a half in Israel, we returned for a short visit to the United States. In a grocery store, I was staggered at the tons of useless conversation between the clerk and the customers in my line, as well as with each other.
“Do you believe this weather?”
“I can’t remember the last time it was so hot.”
“Might have been about 10 years ago, if memory serves me right. It was a hot one back then.”
“Oh, I remember that. My air conditioner gave out three times that summer.”
“My Harry has fixed ours twice in the past month. Don’t want to live without it.”
“Can’t wait for the temperature to drop.”
“Heard it should be cooler by the weekend.”
“You think? That would be nice. It’s just too hot to do anything.”
“Except get groceries!” Polite laughter.
“Got to feed the kids, you know.”
Drivel. Complete time wasting social drivel. Yet, they were using words to connect and establish a temporary relationship with a stranger. Their common experience bonded them within this empty conversation. They might not meet again in their lifetimes, but for a moment, they shared a connection through this useless conversation.
I wanted the same words in Hebrew and Russian. I wanted to talk to the Russian woman I ran into all the time at the corner grocery store who wore beautifully handmade knitted sweaters. I wanted to ask her if she knitted them herself and maybe even ask her to show me how. I wanted to say more than hello and thank you in Russian.
I wanted to talk to my two delightful fruit stand workers and share in the jokes they had with other customers, filling the tiny shop with laughter, while I stood next to them, smiling like I understood, yet disconnected and alone, not able to get the joke.
Standing in the middle of a crowd, I felt alone. Isolated. Unable to get the joke. Unable to express my wishes. Unable to ask a single question. Unable to even do more than smile and nod and hope I was agreeing to something I really wanted.
I thought of all the times I longed for such a conversation with anyone in my new country, and felt sick inside. Envious. I wanted to waste words like that in another language. I wanted to chat up strangers while standing in line. I wanted to ask the check out clerk about her day. I wanted to relax into nonsense, time wasting babble, but I didn’t have the words. The women in the store were wasting their English with nonsense discussions – I wanted the words.
I was angry. I wanted the freedom of expression they had. They didn’t know how lucky they were to have the words when so many like me are x-pats or immigrants living in a world where they just don’t have the words.
When You Don’t Have the Words
As writers and bloggers, we are often without the words to express our thoughts and opinions. This isn’t just a foreign language issue or a disability. We all reach that point in the writing process where we suffer from the “brain fart” – our brain’s temporary freeze along the thought process. We know what we wanted to say, but the words disappear out of our heads. It takes some mental games to get back on track, but eventually we find the words.
Struggling to fit whole thoughts into 140 characters is tough, but what about when you just don’t have the words, nor the ability to express yourself?
Sometimes it’s hard to put our thoughts into words. I will simmer a blog post in my head for days, sometimes months, trying to find an interesting way to convey my message. Sometimes we don’t have the words because we lack the language of the subject.
There are so many things I can write about, but many topics I can’t for I lack the language. I envy the writing of Ed Morita in Baker’s Hours and his incredible ability to write about food and his passion for cooking. I’ve asked him repeatedly to write a blog post that explains the jargon and etymology of food writing and reviewing. It’s a completely foreign language to me, even though he writes in a language I understand.
I envy the ability of Liz Strauss to communicate with metaphors, visual and verbal. Her blog posts are poetry in business communication, helping to get the ideas across with grace, style, and a form of poetry in phrasing and expression. I wish I could write like that.
Don’t ask me to review television shows or movies. I’m terrible. I just don’t speak the language. I can write product reviews, though, as I do speak that language.
I don’t write fiction, other than my one attempt at a fictional essay, for the same reason. I’ll read it, praise it, and rejoice in the experience, but I write fact not fiction. I don’t have the skill set.
We all have our own special way with words, mixing and combining metaphors and similes to communicate our message. Even me, with my funny hand motions for cheese sign language, trying any method I could to connect with anyone, moving beyond the restrictions of language.
My Dream of a Language Barrier Free World
My soap box over the past year has been to push for built-in translation abilities in web browsers. I want to visit any web page in the world and have it instantly readable to me, no matter what the original author’s language is. I want to read what Boris in St. Petersburg, Russia, is doing, and Ernesto in Brazil, and Yin Sing in Japan. I want to know their thoughts on how they live and work, and their opinions on the world around them. I want to get to know them, breaking down the cultural barriers as well as the language barriers.
Sitting here next to Glenda, I’m reminded of that dream. Blogging gave her the freedom to express herself that her body would not permit, opening up a huge world of interaction, relationships, and communication she never dreamed was possible. She now chats regularly with people all over the world through Twitter and her blog. She regularly chats with people in Australia, China, and Chile, worlds away from her Surrey, British Columbia, village.
The web breaks down her language barriers, as well as her geographic restrictions. While she is starting to travel farther and wider in her scooter, as more and more communities become accessible and open to the disabled, she travels furthest on the web, unrestricted by her speech impediment.
In the video she did on How WordPress Changed Her Life, Glenda spoke about sitting in a crowded conference where she was ignored.
At one conference, I was sitting in a room with four or five hundred people and I had this intense feeling of being very alone. No one knew me. No one reached out to me. And, because of my speech, I couldn’t effectively introduce myself. Ironically, the conference was about disability management and hiring people with disabilities and I was looking for a job.
Of all demographics, she was surrounded by people who know better, and she couldn’t communicate.
I so empathize with her. Standing in a city filled with people I desperately wanted to communicate with, filled with frustration, then standing in a store surrounded by people speaking in my own language who wasted words not understanding how precious they are – I felt closer to Glenda.
As you communicate through all the various social media tools out there, think about the words you are adding to the universe. Are you wasting words?
What are you doing to reach out to those who can’t communicate? To those who wish someone would reach through the barriers when they don’t have the words.
Glenda and I shared our self-revelations in communication during our WordCamp Hyatt, and she shares her perspective on her struggles to communicate in Going Beyond Social Media to Connect Deeply much more eloquently than I.