Separate from the relationships we have with family and friends, we count on the conversations of strangers for connection and validation throughout the course of our lives. We often aren’t aware of this need or how it is fulfilled until it goes unfulfilled.
We may go our entire lives without realizing how much we seek out the comfort of overhearing the familiar. Our passive use of this familiarity helps us create tendrils of “I’m like you, you’re like me” and helps us decide who is not like us. We use it to forge paths from not knowing to knowing each other. Our existence as social creatures depends on our ability to sense others, to judge them, and to seek them out or distance ourselves from them. We do this in large part with our ability to hear.
But what if what we’re hearing makes no sense? What if it doesn’t provide connection on any level and instead sets us apart from our fellow human beings by the forceful push of a language we don’t understand?
Suddenly we are catapulted to a time when we understood only the touch of our mother’s hand and the woo of her voice. She was our language and only she spoke to us. When others pulled us near, our infant world was subjected to nonsensical chatter and odd faces. It was confusing and we cried until we were placed back with our mothers.
On a breezy day in Trier, Germany I sit alone with a cappuccino brought by the aging waitress working this crowded outdoor cafe. I look out onto those walking by and then around the cafe. What I see with my eyes is not heard by my ears. Suddenly I want to cry. I long to hear the loving woo of my mother tongue. I feel humbled in front of these people I don’t know and who don’t know me. I feel weakened, as if knowing what others are saying is a form of energy, and I cannot partake. It isn’t that I care what they think, it’s that I have no idea what they think. I don’t know what the people behind me have ordered. I’m missing the reason for the laughter. I’m not learning tidbits about the ancient city gate that sits before us. And I fear the possibility that a good friend is but one table and one language away.
I remember long ago, leaning against my mother and waiting for the school play to begin. A speaker preempted the production with an oration that sapped my strength with unrecognizable words: budget, fiscal, projection. I clung to my mother whose own boredom was deftly conveyed when she reached over and squeezed my hand. Her language was my oasis.
Achingly the months pass as I study one of the many languages we humans share. Every now and then I gurgle with unbridled joy to have understood someone to say “weather — nice — today”. I think it’s a nice day, too! Connection, validation, energy! I’m not alone! Perhaps there is a knowing glance and an exchange of smiles further fueling this exclusive and human embrace. Hundreds of thousands of times this simple interaction plays itself out in our lives, providing the key to a thousand doors we can choose to walk through or walk by because we have not been locked out by our inability to understand.
I look around the still crowded cafe and stand to leave, heavy with disconnection and a foreboding sense that I don’t belong. I let my fingers linger over several euro coins I’ve placed upon my bill. The aging waitress reaches down and squeezes my hand. Her language is my oasis.