I created a new blog called The Relationship Dance. I named it such because relationships traditionally involve two or more units (be they human or otherwise), and those units seem to dance with each other, reacting to each other; moving together, then apart; liking or loving each other, in what seem like dance moves. There seems to be a musicality, a rhythm to their interactions. Those rhythms can be harmonious or jarring, fluid or jagged.
One aspect of relationships is communication. In the 4You section of our local paper on January 8, 2011, there is a column by Jackie Silver on “The Art of Communication — Music to Your Ears,” in which she gives some pointers on the finer art of “verbal” communication. I put that word in quotation marks because she precedes her discourse by invoking the book by Albert Mehrabian, “Nonverbal Communication” (Aldine Transaction), where he discusses that communication comes in many forms, where words (verbal communication) have been found to be only 7% effective in communicating the message; tone of voice was 38% effective, and nonverbal cues are an astounding 55% effective. She then proceeds to list a few ways to improve one’s verbal communication. I would like to expound on her treatise by exploring the other forms of communication, specifically, the nonverbal kind.
As many of my friends know, I have been married to a Japanese man for the past 20 years. When we met in Kobe, Japan, he spoke almost no English, and I spoke even less Japanese. Yet somehow, we were successful at communicating our nonnegotiable standards, our values and dreams for our life together. More surprisingly, we didn’t court in the traditional sense, since at the time of our meeting, he was living in Japan and I in the United States. We did not even go on an online dating sites such as dudethrill.com. Everything was happened extraordinarily and non-conventional. I know that our differences in culture, location and language would be a big barrier for us to push through with our relationship. But with patience, understanding and love, we’re able to overcome them. We spoke by phone every day, each one of us buried in our respective dictionaries. We met several times during our strange courtship, the first time in San Francisco, next in Hawaii, I then joined him in Japan over Valentine’s Day, and he came to visit me in Miami twice before I rejoined him again in Japan for our first wedding (we married again in Miami for my side of the family). All told, we spent 34 days together over that year before our wedding.
The most remarkable thing about our relationship is that I have never felt any kind of cultural difference between us; rather, we have always acknowledged that we relate to each other as human to human. Surely, there are cultural differences between a Japanese man and an Occidental woman, but those differences are negligible when considered in the totality of a relationship. One difference I can relate is his level of demonstrativeness as compared to what I would enjoy: he is more restrained. But within our everyday life, our plans, our daily dealings with the exigencies of life, our interactions are smooth and compatible. We do not grate on each other; we do not contradict each other; we do not object to each other; and we generally live harmoniously.
When we planned to meet in Hawaii over the Christmas/New Year holiday, I remember feeling quite anxious about my then boyfriend. It was to have been a two-week holiday, and I very much wanted to see how he behaved during a time of vacation: Would he drink to excess? Did he like to dance into the wee hours of the morning, and then sleep until noon? In short, did he behave in ways which would not be compatible with my own life flow. I was delightfully surprised to see that his rhythm seemed to match my own — he drank to moderation, did not stay up late just for its own sake, and generally had similar tastes when it came to recreational activities. We seemed to be compatible, all without speaking excessively.
And over the past 20 years, our life has followed a similar rhythm, where the ebb and flow seems to follow its own path, without resisting, and where we seem to know what each of us is thinking and feeling.
Which brings me to nonverbal communication. We have had our disagreements. More to the point, we have had our moments of not feeling right with each other. In other words, a tiff. I hesitate to call them disagreements, because we either see eye to eye on important matters, or simply do not bother to disagree when the subject is not earth shattering. When we do have a tiff, it is usually over something so trivial and insignificant as to not merit discussion. The only thing I would like to talk about is “what happened?” This is where our cultural differences come into the picture: He is not comfortable dissecting and rehashing what happened, while I am, especially with my background in psychology and my own exposure to American media that espouses hashing and rehashing and talking about what’s troubling us. That is my own background, but not his. Within this difference in our respective approach to a tiff, I have tried to understand his reluctance to talk things out, and frustrating as it may be, my conclusion has become that talking things out is overrated, because when you think about it, you already know what’s wrong; you already know what ticked him off; you already know why you feel irritated.
The column by Jackie Silver where she expounds on some points of verbal communication, which supposedly accounts for only 7% of effective communication, she suggests several “how-tos” that might improve your message: Refine the message, in other words, be clear on what your message is, rather than ramble on about irrelevancies; start with a positive tone, where you would say something positive about the person or situation; ask for feedback, to ensure that your message is understood; stop and listen, so you are not the only talking “at” your partner; try not to go away angry, by summing up both sides of the conversation. She suggests that one start such a conversation with a smile, to make you look warm; that you maintain eye contact; that you consider your posture, so as not to invade your partner’s space, or not seem aloof; and relax. All lofty suggestions.
I can state from personal experience that those suggestions, albeit valid, are nonetheless threatening. When one is upset, no amount of smiling will convey a message of warmth. The smile will come across as phony and insincere, “oily” and manipulative, especially if followed by a complaint. As for that complaint, I have rarely been able to sugarcoat a complaint, a point of contention. My own style is to maintain eye contact, but when I am upset, eye contact is about the last thing I want. As for finding that positive note before hammering with my “real” message, again, that smacks of manipulation. My husband has many positive traits, traits that I find admirable and lovable; traits which make me giddy with delight; traits which make me glad that he is my husband. And I have told him repeatedly how much I love them. But when it comes time to tell him verbally that I am displeased about something, bringing up his positive traits simply will not cut it. It will not be believable. For the most part, when he becomes upset with me, I may get my feathers in an uproar, but if I sit wtih myself long enough and try not to respond and react wtih my own litany of irritated behaviors, I am usually able to link back to the offending item. And he has done the same repeatedly over the years.
In the final analysis, the hardest thing of all in the effort to untangle a misunderstanding or a tiff is to just be quiet long enough for things to settle down. Not with slamming doors; not with harsh talk; and certainly not through retaliation. It is when things calm down and are back to “normal” that we have had our best success in either bursting out laughing at the silliness of it all, or exploring more in depth what was the cause of our irritation. In our case, and I suspect that is true of most people, talking things out should really be reserved for those rare occasions when there is something definite to resolve.