I was hanging out in a coffee shop the other night. It was one of those coffee shops that is attached to a large bookstore. The large bookstore is inside of a large mall. So the area of the coffe shop kind of bleeds into the bookshop area, which in turn melts into the mall area. I happened to be sitting at a table near the back, facing outward, so I had a fairly good view of the bookstore, and coffee shop table area, and the area just out in front of the book shop inside the mall. As I was sitting there, watching people walk by and read their various magazines and drink their various coffee drinks and other things, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. I motioned for her to come and sit down, as she was alone and seemed to be wandering around aimlessly, as people like to do during their free time.
She had just come back from a trip to Europe. She had bought on of those multi-country rail passes, and had traveled through various countries. She spent lots of time telling me about the different food and culture she’d experienced, as well as some of the new words in various languages that she’d picked up. She said that people really reacted well to her when she spoke the local language. She also said that the words “Please” and “Thank you” were very powerful. She mentioned that a few times she ran across some tourist that seemed to have a condescending attitude, which didn’t get them very far. She even was able to secure a table in a restaurant that had been refused to two tourists just in front of her.
We started talking about how important it is to speak to others in their own language. It would seem that this would be obvious to most people, but apparently her experience says otherwise. Some people when they speak to others assume that everybody has same experience and frames of reference as they do. This can be extremely unhelpful, and the person listening has to work twice as hard. One to figure out exactly what frame of reference the person is coming from, and two to try and figure out exactly what the message is.
It reminded me of a lecture I saw on a memory expert. She was saying that everybody has a different “memory map” inside their brains, and we all operate from different memory maps. Even people that grew up in the same family in the same circumstances can have very different memory maps. The lecturer explained that one of the biggest failures of western style education is that it is assumed that every student that enters school has the same memory map, as they are all taught the same way. Teachers can become frustrated when they are trying to teach students that have vastly different maps than they do. I guess it’s not so bad when teaching something as straightforward as mathematics or hard science. Even then you have to be careful and make sure the person you are talking to is at least one the same level as you, and not higher or lower.
I’m sure you’ve had the experience of having an argument with somebody, and you were both arguing about two completely different things, for two completely different reasons. I can remember several heated engineering discussions I’ve had in the past with an engineering manager of mine. On the surface, it would seem that something as cut and dried as engineering would be simple to talk about. But when you add in two different egos, expectations, and experiences into the mix, and you suddenly find yourself in a heap of trouble.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. The biggest hurdle to overcome is getting over your need to be right. Getting over your need to get your opinion heard so that you can maybe get some recognition and ego gratification out of the deal. The paradox is that by focusing on imposing your opinion, you actually get less validation and ego gratification. By stepping back enough to make you sure you understand the other person enough to more effectively present your opinion, so that it is actually heard rather than argued with, you will be much more successful. And you actually might learn something.