The Language of Intelligence: Communication Barriers on Home Soil
“Hey, how long do you think it’ll take me to smash that book out? Just so I can get it back to you before I leave.”
I’m asking my co-worker, Lucy, about a book she’d lent me, in which the protagonist goes on a spiritual journey of self-discovery during the height of Buddhism. We’re on a farm in rural Queensland, tending to animals and harvesting fruit in exchange for a bed, food and some peace and quiet away from our respective inner-city lives.
I was glad Lucy had joined the throng – she’d taken the spot of a dull Australian/German couple who largely kept to themselves outside work and didn’t put too much effort into getting to know me, the newbie.
“I mean, it took me a day, but that’s because I’d already innately thought about the concepts in the book just through my life. You might take a bit longer.”
I inwardly snort. Being with Lucy is looking to someone holding up a mirror to my younger self – she is 18, vivacious and intelligent, full of strong, unyielding opinions about feminism, politics, socialism and body hair.
She knows far more about politics and music than I do and asks me about such things often: not to have a comrade in the analysis of Fiona Apple’s comeback to music with Pitchfork’s album of the year, but because my lack of personal knowledge on any such information meant it was her chance to educate me about it.
She thinks her friends are immature because they haven’t left their hometown; when I was her age, I thought so too. She rails me for not taking off my bikini at the nude beach and she analyses my enjoyment of my monogamous relationship. I bite my tongue from telling her I used to be, in fact, exactly like her.
Charles, our 67-year-old European host and boss, chimes in: “I think Australians just lack that certain depth, that certain deep sorrow about the state of the world that requires them to think spiritually about these things. Don’t you think, Lucy?”
Lucy is born and bred Sydneysider, but has one parent from France, so I suppose that includes her in the “European” category.
“Maybe they’re just not willing to dig deep,” Charles concludes, looking at me.
He thinks vinyl flooring in homes is the reason for girls starting their periods earlier. There’s literature supporting that, but more literature supporting overconsumption of dairy as the culprit – but his opinions are not spoken as offerings for controversy, or even conversation about the evidence and anecdotes behind such statements. Instead, they’re a sincere statement in an attempt to save you from your own ignorance.
I later call my boyfriend and laugh for about an hour at their completely incorrect interpretation of who I am and all I stand for. Coming to the farm, my intention was to pipe down and listen a bit more than I spoke.
I was tiring of the political and feminist debates that occur in the echo chamber of the left-leaning inner north of Melbourne, where all conversations offer no differing insight and become a circle jerk of everyone who encourages the correctness of the person before them.
I wasn’t particularly engaged in many of these same conversations that occurred on the farm, as I felt I had nothing more to add, and no opportunity to oppose. The conclusive opinion was thus that I was too unintelligent or unspiritual to have such discussions.
“I imagine you’ll be learning a lot here, Misaki!” Charles continues gleefully, now looking at our last crewmember, a lady from Osaka, not at all meaning that her knack for things like Australian colloquialism might improve. Instead, thinking that he would empower her with political, spiritual, and feminist ideas that she had, in his eyes, been so deprived of in Japan – as though she couldn’t have conceptualised such philosophy in her 26 years if she couldn’t convey it in English.
There was nothing more uncomfortable than listening to Lucy go on a diatribe about something like the interconnection between the Indian and psychedelic influence during the peak of the 60s counterculture influence on the Beatle’s sound production, with Misaki as her unfortunate audience.
She would politely nod ‘uh-huh’ at intervals she deemed appropriate as Lucy graciously paused after each three-syllable word to realise it wouldn’t be understood, only to tack on an extra sentence as explanation, containing just as complex words.
Despite Misaki speaking about her enjoyment of her habit of going to onsens with her girlfriends, Charles and Lucy explained to me, in hushed tones in passing, that we must take Misaki to the nude beach we’d visited to free her from the constraints of her nervousness around her naked body.
She and I’d had conversations around the concept of onsens and how nudity from the opposite gender is considered pretty salacious in her culture and inherently sexual. While she’s totally comfortable being in the nude around her girlfriends, there’s something that makes her uncomfortable about seeing naked men in public, even on Australian soil.
I imagine she’d be able to explain these concepts to Charles and Bernie further if she spoke English more proficiently, but they merely saw her as someone too out of touch with the feminist values that automatically negated any meaning from the naked body; like her boundaries were something she needed to be saved from.
I lamented the missed opportunity for Misaki to genuinely learn something new about Australia, or share more about her own culture, or defend her own boundaries, because as a cohort, we were unwilling to slow down, shut up, or listen more.
I look back and see my previous co-workers, the dull Australian/German couple, in a new light; their conversations, in retrospect, were simple, not unintelligent. He, the English speaker, intentionally slowed down his language and storytelling; they were less detailed in an effort to not alienate his girlfriend from the conversation; to not be the outsider in her own temporary home.
He probably didn’t ask me much about myself because as two Aussies, we can easily slip into a speedy conversation full of slang and colloquialisms that leave out anyone not raised in the same place.
I recall my eighteen-year-old self and again, she is paralleled with Lucy – so eager to talk and be listened to, to form deep connections, that at hostels, I scarcely bothered with other backpackers that didn’t share my mother tongue.
When I did, it was a soliloquy about something that interested me, to silence the jilted, effortful conversation that would occur in broken sentences if I wasn’t taking the stage as an opportunity for the easy way out: a monologue about my opinions, preaching to a listener who doesn’t understand enough to rebut nor confer.
I still wonder what I missed out on learning because I was too busy avoiding the reality of misunderstanding or being misunderstood.
Cover by Zoe Schaeffer