What Do You Mean?

By Robine Jean-Pierre

You see an abstract painting on the wall in a museum. The seemingly random assortment of swirls, shapes and colors leaves you puzzled and intrigued. One onlooker says it reminds her of a sinking ship. Another comes along and says it must be a garden. A small inscription on the wall indicates that the painter wanted to illustrate a busy city street. Who is right?

I like to think that every form of communication consists of at least two aspects: intention (what the speaker wants to convey) and reception (how the listener interprets it). I use speaker and listener as general terms, but the pair could also be artist and viewer, author and reader, etc. In an ideal world, intention and reception would always be equal; the speaker would give a message, and the listener would understand exactly what the speaker meant. However, very rarely does it work this way in the real world. Too often, the speaker says one thing but the listener takes it to mean something completely different. It is like a constant tug of war between the two aspects; sometimes intention holds more weight, and other times reception is more significant.

Intention Matters

I believe there are times when what the speaker has to say is way more important than anyone’s interpretation. For example, art can very subjective because of its connection to the emotions, and its ability to disguise meaning in symbols and metaphors. However, art can also be very concrete. A sculpture of a fruit basket can simply be a representation of a fruit basket. An engraving of a monarch created during his reign can have very specific references, styles, or symbols pertaining to that particular time period, nation, etc. Many of these references would be meaningless without the proper context.

For another example, take one of William Shakespeare’s works. Many of the words he used have very different meanings today; the “nothing” in his comedy titled Much Ado About Nothing was, among several meanings, slang for “lady parts” (see “Double Entendre & Innuendo in Much Ado About Nothing” on Study.com for more). What use would it be for today’s readers to read his works and give them blind modern interpretations? Without context, we would never get at what he was really saying and we would miss out on the genius behind much of his work.

Reception Matters

On the flip side, there are also times when the way a message is taken by the receiver can take precedence over what the sender meant. This is the case especially when it comes to social interactions. Our ideas of what is proper, preferred, or offensive are heavily dictated by our culture and personal experiences. Since this varies from person to person, it can be very easy for misinterpretations to arise.

Let’s say Jack often tells Jill, “You’re one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” and Jill takes it to mean, “I have feelings for you.” Jill might get excited at the thought of Jack wanting to be romantically involved; or, she might get offended that Jack appears to be hitting on her when she’s already in a committed relationship. Jack’s intentions may have simply been to be kind to Jill, but he did not consider that, for Jill, receiving frequent compliments from a guy must mean he’s interested in her.

In situations like these, “good intentions” are not necessarily enough. The listener has the right to present her interpretation to the speaker, even if she was totally off the mark. The speaker could then reevaluate what he said and consider taking some responsibility, even if he “didn’t mean it like that,” in order to restore peace or clear the air. Sure, there are people out there who are hypersensitive and get offended too easily, no matter how careful you are in expressing yourself. Nonetheless, it’s usually safer to address people with an attitude that says “if one of us was wrong, it was probably me; how can I fix this?”

I believe that the key to making sure intention and reception agree with one another is to get feedback. Switch up listener and speaker roles often; if they are constant, then you may have to ask yourself, “Is this a dialogue or a monologue? Are we having a conversation, or  a lecture?” After someone has said something to you, there is nothing wrong with replying, “So what you’re basically saying is…?” and reiterating what you believe the message was. Another option is to ask your listener, “So what do you think of what I just said? Does it make sense? How do you feel about it?” Think of all the arguments, misunderstandings, and mistakes that could be prevented if we just took the extra time to get and give feedback.

Have you ever said something that someone took the wrong way, or vice versa? How was the misunderstanding resolved? What are some ways you practice giving or getting feedback?

Unity in Diversity

By Robine Jean-Pierre

During spring break, I went on a three day “unity retreat” in Pennsylvania through an organization called Seekers Christian Fellowships. I am currently the president of the Seekers club here at City Tech, so I definitely made it a priority to be there and represent. It was an amazing experience and I wish I could have spent the whole week there!

One of the purposes of this event was to assemble high school and college students from various Seekers-affiliated schools so they could make new friends and explore their faith together. We would be unified through relationships that transcended differences in age, gender, background, and career path.

The strong cultural diversity apparent on the retreat was quite remarkable. We had students and staff with ethnic backgrounds representing India, Sri Lanka, Korea, Jamaica, Haiti, Colombia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Uganda, and more.

At any given moment, one of us was cracking a racially/culturally fueled joke that was borderline inappropriate (if not for the fact that people mostly joked about their own respective cultures, not really anyone else’s). From memory, here are a few examples of the intriguing, humorous statements I heard:
“It would be disappointing if we met Hispanic people who weren’t loud.”
“Indians are even louder! Have you ever been to an Indian party?”
“Look. I’m Hispanic and I’m crazy, so…”
“I’m Korean. Waking up early is easy for me.”
“He’s not even real Indian–he’s Sri Lankan.”

A Seekers friend of ours had even remarked once that our Korean and Ugandan staff members reminded him of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, respectively; when I told one of them this joke during the retreat, he was deeply amused.

Sometimes the boundaries were almost crossed when people of different ethnic backgrounds tried to mimic each other’s accents, but if the person did a good job, it was praised; if not, you could feel the awkwardness which quickly dissipated in laughter.

More serious, personal comments also provoked cultural awareness in some way. For example, our Korean staff member told us about how his dad was so strict that if he came home with a 98 on an assignment, he would be very disappointed and ask, “Where are the other two points?” He also mentioned the fact that he was the first Asian person his acquaintance from the Midwest had ever met in the flesh (as opposed to on TV). Our Colombian director explained that a lot of people thought she was white when she wasn’t, yet she had siblings whose complexions were every color of the rainbow. One college student opened up about how Indian parents tended to be loving but also fiercely overprotective.

Although not every ethnicity was represented on the retreat, I was grateful to be exposed to so many different cultures and learn more through both lighthearted and serious conversation. Being able to understand and relate to other cultures can be so helpful in promoting peace and unity, starting with the interactions of just two people. As Seekers members, this is especially crucial to our common Christian belief that God loves everyone (not just specific people groups) and wants us to do the same.

Women Empowerment in “The Final Reel”

by Robine Jean-Pierre

an unraveling reel of film

courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Last week, City Tech put on a play called “The Final Reel,” directed by Mark Lonergan and produced by Parallel Exit, in the Voorhees Theater. I was personally invested in the show, since our professor, John Huntington, had us participate in the load-in and other technical aspects of pre-production. We helped out in both my Technical Production and Sound Systems classes. I heard a lot of good about it but had no idea what to expect.

Here is the blurb from the City Tech Theatreworks website:
“The Final Reel is inspired by the iconic films Sherlock Jr and The purple Rose of Cairo. An eccentric historian discovers the holy grail of silent films: the final reel of a forgotten classic thought to be lost to history. As he presents the film for the first time in a hundred years, his bumbling assistant accidentally steps into the movie and falls in love with the heroine. The two-love birds step back into the modern world and the heroine is left to make a fateful decision – one that changes every night of performance with the help of the audience.”

Watching the rehearsal that afternoon, hours before opening night, was definitely a rewarding experience. I was fascinated by the technological creativity, the excellent acting, and the hilarious plot, with humor reminiscent of classic shows like Tom and Jerry. To top it all, what I did not expect was a deeper underlying theme that unearthed itself toward the end: women empowerment.

Perhaps what no one is expecting is that this aforementioned heroine happens to be the real Penny, the actress and playwright straight out of the film from one hundred years ago! She explains that it had all been a part of her plan to escape her own era, and “time travel” to one in which women would finally be recognized for their full potential and talent. It worked and now, here she is, in New York in 2018, where that dream could finally come true.

The “bumbling assistant” mentioned in the blurb earlier introduces her to the crowd (us in the audience), to which she feistily replies, more or less, “I don’t need an introduction, bucko. I can introduce myself, thank you very much.” It is hilarious and somewhat gratifying to realize just how bold, loud and sassy she is in real life–especially after having observed her charming, gentle and submissive demeanor when she was still in the silent film. Her “true colors” certainly were not expected of a woman during her time.

She explains that, as an actress and playwright, she had been marginalized and objectified by the men of her day. She was often treated like a doll rather than a dignified professional. Now she has the authority to write her own plays, act her own character, and fully put her talent to use, without any glass ceilings over her head. And her love interest will be her assistant, waiting on and submitting to her (willingly) rather than the other way around. The Voorhees Theater would have to be closed after all.

I appreciate the fact that, although the play was quite lighthearted and comical, it presented us with a talented and intelligent woman who took herself seriously and earned everyone’s respect. And what better time to put this play on than in March? Happy Women’s History Month!

S.O.S.

By Robine Jean-Pierre

Do you ever feel like you have no one to talk to? That even if someone were there to listen, they just wouldn’t understand?

I have been haunted by this loneliness from time to time, but I know deep down that there is no such thing as “no one to talk to.” It just takes way more effort to reach out to someone than to stay to myself and sulk.

This semester has been getting progressively more difficult. During the past week in particular, I realized that I was operating in “burn-out” mode. My days started early and ended late; I did not sleep as much as I would have liked; assignments were sneaking up on me and piling up. As a result, I was very physically, emotionally and mentally drained.

Who could I reach out to? Although I had so many friends and family around me, it felt as if talking to them would be futile. They all had problems of their own–why sadden them with my sob-stories? And even if they were willing, could they really afford to stop and listen to me? After my bad attitude had ruined one of our evenings together, it became clear to me that even my own fiancé, Angel, could handle only so much of my mess. I spitefully considered never opening up to anyone again–but then, who would that hurt more: me or them?

Fortunately, taking initiative would not have to be my responsibility all the time. My high school friend Erie texted me the other night, just to check up on me. I opened up to her, explaining how alone I felt. I even mentioned that I was considering going to therapy. Her responses were considerate and attentive. She gently chided me for not talking to her about it sooner. Our conversation really alleviated some of my distress.

Two days later, initiating a face-to-face talk with my long-time friend Cassandra was also very helpful. She and I have very similar upbringings and personalities, so she has been like a big sister to me for most of my life. She understood my rambling and personally identified with my conflicts.

People are not perfect, needless to say; even your confidants might miss your call, or misinterpret what you are attempting to express at first. Yet, once they are ready, they are all ears and all heart. They are quick to listen and give you time to breathe before offering their advice.

I am so grateful for all the people who have helped me overcome personal struggles, including family, teachers, friends, and Angel. One single person may not have been available all the time, but collectively, they have generously offered support, wisdom, counsel and love.

The next time I am tempted to shut down and cut myself off from others during a crisis, I will remember that communicating will only help me in the long run, even if it is painful. There is nothing strong about simply hiding weakness; strength is courageously making yourself vulnerable, knowing that none of us can handle this life alone.

Who do you run to when you are in a crisis? Is opening up about personal struggles a challenge for you? Why or why not?

Learning the Ropes: Communication in the Entertainment Industry

by Robine Jean-Pierre

I am majoring in Entertainment Technology here at City Tech, and I have spent the last three years getting to know the entertainment industry. I have remarked that it takes a team to put on any production or performance; there’s hardly such a thing as a “one man show.” Think about the credits at the end of a movie; all of those names represent someone who contributed in some way, whether as an actor or a makeup artist.

Because it takes a team of people who specialize in different fields, all working together to make one big project come alive, communication is very valuable to this industry. My major requires me to take four semesters of Technical Production, a course that allows me to experience what it’s like to work on a real crew and put on real productions in our school. This is the class where I have learned most of the communication norms and standards we use on site.

Danger!

Being in the entertainment industry can actually be dangerous. We are often dealing with ladders, heavy objects hanging in the air, electricity, and power tools, just to name a few things. The primary need for effective communication is to protect everyone’s health and safety.

For example, above the stage area of the Voorhees Theater hang two long, lattice-like structures called trusses. These trusses are attached to motors which enable them to be raised toward the ceiling or lowered all the way to the ground. They are used to hang lights or other equipment. Since the trusses are huge and the motors are very powerful, the person operating the motors typically alerts everyone in the vicinity by saying in a loud and clear voice, “We’re going to be lowering (or raising) the truss.” That would be the cue for everyone else to move out of the way. (Generally, the other crew members shout back “thank you” as a courteous gesture.)

Moving Heavy Objects as a Team

the Yamaha PM5D mixing console on a stand

courtesy of SoundBroker.com

Sometimes it takes four or five people just to move one piece of scenery or equipment. Take the huge Yamaha PM5D sound mixing console, for instance. Just opening up its protective road case and lifting it up and out onto a table can take five minutes. Our professors, Erica Stoltz and John Huntington, kept repeating to us that before we did anything, someone had to take initiative to be the leader, announce the method of lifting/moving, and then count it out (“on three… one, two three”).

One method we often use (perhaps unofficially called “up and over”) means lifting an object straight up and then sliding it over horizontally to its desired location. It’s important to first state the method and also count it out because if everyone is in sync, the job will be accomplished more smoothly, but most importantly, the chances of someone getting hurt will be reduced.

Ask for Help

One thing I have appreciated about the professors in the Entertainment Technology department is that, for the most part, they do not believe in “dumb questions.” Many of them are accomplished technicians with loads of experience and knowledge; as intimidating as they might at first seem, they are not shy about sharing it. In my Technical Production Skills and Health and Safety courses, we were constantly reminded to ask for help if we needed it. It is way safer to consult the teacher or a fellow classmate on how to use a radial arm saw, than to just wing it and risk losing a finger!

What are some other industries or disciplines you can think of in which communication is crucial? Do you feel as if communication is very significant in your major? How so?

Do You Speak Sarcasm?

by Robine Jean-Pierre

Growing up, sarcasm was practically my native tongue. I spoke it most fluently with my siblings. It was something we naturally did to mess with each other, without giving it much thought. I can hear my older brother and sister saying mockingly, “Nooooo…. Really?” in response to what they deemed was an obvious, redundant statement on our part.

As I got older, however, I gradually decided to minimize my use of sarcasm. I felt that I was being unnecessarily condescending and rude by primarily using sarcasm to mock my younger sister and cousin. It had gotten so bad that when I did stop, they had to keep asking me, “Are you being serious or sarcastic?”

Another factor in my decision to reduce, if not altogether eliminate, my sarcastic comments was the fact that “sarcasm is not universal.” (While it can be argued that the use of sarcasm actually is universal, its uses may vary from culture to culture. If you are interested in more, see this LanguageLog post on irony and sarcasm.) This phrase was repeated at Camp Rising Sun all summer, which I attended during high school. The camp consisted of about 60 girls from all over the world, so it was a potpourri of cultures, interests, and preferences. Many of the international girls were uncomfortable with a New Jersey camper whose sarcastic comments they took literally, not knowing any better.

A similar awkwardness initially infringed on our friendship when I had realized that my fiancé, Angel, did not fully understand sarcasm. I’ll admit, the discovery was a little disappointing; I would not be able to tease him (or subtly express an offense) in the way I best knew how. In spite of this, it still slipped out with him sometimes, especially when I had a bad day. For instance, if I said something like, “Wow, I overslept and the trains are running with delays. Isn’t that just wonderful?” rather than scoffing with me, Angel would nervously reply, “No, that’s not wonderful, honey…” and try to lighten the mood.

On another occasion, Angel had been texting me all about how an event had gone that morning, and how happy and “fired up” all of the attendees had been. I, on the other hand, had not been there and was waiting impatiently to tell him how I was doing. Feeling peevish and “salty” (as they say nowadays), I texted him, “My morning was great too, thanks for asking.” As you can imagine, he was not very happy about this, and I told him what was on my heart. I realized then that, in most cases, it would suffice to be straightforward and honest, not passive-aggressive.

Now I save sarcasm for the situations that would least likely cause offense. I crack sarcastic jokes on the MTA all the time, and even Angel chimes in now and then. (He’s learning!) I still say “oh, great” or “that’s nice” at times when I literally mean “this is awful.” And naturally, I am more likely to use sarcasm with people who also use it, so that there is a mutual understanding (which is the key to all communication!).

How do you feel about sarcasm? Do you use it or understand it? Why or why not, and when? Please feel free to share your thoughts below.

I’ve Got the Keys

By Robine Jean-Pierre

Growing up, I heard Haitian Creole and English spoken interchangeably at home. My knowledge of Creole started off as a collection of simple words and phrases pertaining to cuisine, the household, and hygiene. Unfortunately, I soon developed the regrettable habit of hearing a question or statement in Haitian Creole and responding in English. As a result, I’ve always understood more Creole than I can actually speak.

Taking up French in sixth grade drastically increased my Creole vocabulary. Many people I’ve come across expected it to be the other way around–in other words, that knowing Creole first would have helped me learn French. (My eighth grade French teacher used to exclude me from competitive games during class because she thought I had an unfair advantage.) In truth, my analytical mind started to make connections between the original French terms and the cognates that derived from these. For example, du riz in French means “[some/of] rice” and I realized that this was where the Creole diri came from. (If you’re interested in more on this, consider reading  An Nou Palé – Let’s Talk.)

By the end of high school, I had taken French for six years and Spanish for about two (just for fun, since I loved it so much), so that means I have four languages under my belt. However, I’d be lying if I said I could speak each one (aside from English) 100% fluently! This fact embarrasses me, and I often ask myself, Is it the flawed education system? Is it me? Did I ever really learn?

The answer is simple: PRACTICE. For all my theory and knowledge and textbook smarts, I have not always taken advantage of real-life opportunities to practice–and by this I mean live, on-the-spot, spoken communication. I figure that if I’m not speaking Creole as fluently as I’d like to, it’s because of my own timidity, but most heritage speakers have the same struggle. I was always afraid that I would be mocked for pronouncing something wrong or fumbling a sentence, which kept me from trying. (Being condescending is somewhat ingrained in Haitian culture, so my fears were well-grounded.)

It bothers me that I am familiar, yet not fluent, with these three languages other than English (LOTEs); but what I need is to get bothered enough to actually do something about it. Plus, nothing pushes you more than having a sense of “need” rather than just “want.” I’ve been considering multiple measures: getting language-learning apps like DuoLingo; finding friends who speak the desired language and striking up a conversation; and replying in Creole to my family’s questions (which, of course, would take a whole lot of guts).

For French and Creole, especially, I know that most of the words are stored up in my brain somewhere, so it’s just a matter of excavating them. My worst nightmare would be to lose what it took so many years to learn, especially since it’s harder to learn new things as you get older. In the future, I hope to travel to communities that speak any of the three LOTEs, and be able to communicate comfortably. Languages are like keys that open the doors to other worlds, and I wish to hold onto those keys as tightly as I can.

Peering into the Perfect Melancholy Mind

By Robine Jean-Pierre

a man blurred in the background looking at a chessboard in focus in the foreground

provided by Pixnio


In
my previous post, I talked about the concept of the Four Temperaments, which is discussed in depth in Florence Littauer’s book, Personality Plus. After taking the personality profile included in the book, I discovered that I am primarily a Perfect Melancholy. I would love to share some of my exciting and challenging realizations with you. Maybe this will help you if you have the same temperament, or if you know someone who does.

My Strengths
For one thing, my intellectual, analytical nature has contributed to my success at school. I won’t say it’s been easy or effortless to get high grades; what I will say is that I’ve had more of a desire and an aptitude to excel in academic pursuits. It helps that I love to learn for the sake of learning.

Creativity and artistic ability are also strengths of mine. I sing, compose, write, play piano and guitar, and draw pretty well (at least in my opinion!). It’s easy for me to catch the melody of a song I’ve only heard once, draw realistic cartoons, or write haikus on the spot, for example.

My Weaknesses
Being the analytical, planning type can also be a setback. Sometimes I get so stuck in my mind that it’s hard to turn thoughts into actions. I gave my fiancé Angel a hard time when he taught me how to play chess, because I felt as if every move I made had to be the “right” one. You can imagine how long our games went on for.

The need to do things the “right” way leads into the bigger issue of perfectionism. I’ve often set unrealistically high expectations for those closest to me. With my sister, I’ve been too critical, practically looming over her shoulder and correcting her every move. As you can imagine, this has often annoyed her. (It doesn’t help that both my mom and aunt are also Perfect Melancholies.) With my fiancé Angel, my reserved, introverted tendencies make me self-conscious and easily embarrassed. As a Popular Sanguine, he can be very over the top in expressing himself–loud declarations of his love for me, singing on the train, dancing in the streets–and I can be harsh in the way I express my disdain, with jabs or death stares.

My Outlook
The way I see it, knowing my strengths and weaknesses can set the tone for all areas of my life, from my relationships to my career path. Understanding my temperament means avoiding situations that I am not well-suited to handle (unless there is room for growth or other gain). For example, being a planned and orderly person, I would not take on a job that seems to be too chaotic and spontaneous; teaching a kindergarten class could potentially lead to an emotional breakdown.

Conversely, understanding my temperament means making choices that will highlight and reinforce my strengths. To give one example, I often take the initiative in planning dates with Angel because we both agree that I do this well.

I hope this helped you get a better understanding of what Perfect Melancholy people are like. Chances are you or someone you know has a personality that aligns with this temperament. What are some takeaways that might change how to interact with them, or how you view yourself? Please feel free to share your thoughts with me below.

Personality Plus: An Ancient Idea with a Modern Flair

by Robine Jean-Pierre

My fiancé Angel and I can say that our initial friendship deepened as a result of some important exchanges. To name one, I introduced him to the world of contemporary Christian music, and he unlocked the door to the library of positive mental attitude (PMA) books. One of the first books I saw him read was Personality Plus by Florence Littauer. I made it very clear to him that I was curious about it, and he made it clear that it would change my life. Once I got a hold of it, I dove right in.

In short, the book did change my life. It introduced to me the idea that while there are plenty of things that make people unique and distinct, we all naturally tend to fall into certain identifiable patterns and habits. It becomes way easier to understand ourselves and communicate with others when we take these patterns and habits into account.

Throughout history, there have been various studies that expound upon these distinct sets of patterns and habits. This book specifically addresses and builds upon the ancient Greek idea of the Four Temperaments. Littauer describes them as Popular Sanguine, Powerful Choleric, Perfect Melancholy, and Peaceful Phlegmatic. I’ll offer a simplified summary of each below.

Popular Sanguine
People with this temperament tend to be bubbly, talkative, friendly, and outgoing. They are often considered “the life of the party” and “the center of attention.” They often struggle with forgetfulness, following through on a commitment, and can swing between emotional highs and lows pretty quickly.

Powerful Choleric
These people are often considered “natural leaders” because they have a bold, straightforward demeanor and a strong will. If a task needs to get done, they most likely will take the initiative. At the same time, they can be bossy, stubborn, and, as the name implies, they can have a bad temper.

Perfect Melancholy
Those who fall under this category are “the thinkers.” They can be quiet and reserved at times, but their minds are brimming with intellect and creative talent. On the negative side, they can be too hard on themselves and others because of their perfectionist mindset. Their emotional cycle of highs and lows tends to be more intense and slower paced (it may take longer to recover from an offense).

Peaceful Phlegmatic
These individuals are very mellow and “chill.” They make great listeners because of their passive nature, and they do not waste time making decisions because their answer will usually be “either one” or “I don’t care.” At the same time, they are more likely to procrastinate because they sometimes lack self-motivation to make more important decisions. They can also come off as indifferent because they do not express their emotions easily.

Similarities and Differences
The temperaments within themselves share certain similarities. For instance, Perfect Melancholy and Powerful Choleric tend to be more intense, independent, “task-oriented.” As a result, they may at times come off as emotionally detached, or too serious, but their determination and resolve can definitely be beneficial. Someone of either temperament might isolate herself in her room until she is finished with her homework, for example. On the flip side, Popular Sanguine and Peaceful Phlegmatic are more “people-or
iented.” Either one would be willing to drop whatever they are doing to help a friend. They are more likely to let emotions influence their decisions, which can be helpful or harmful.

These relationships are further explored in a similar theory, the Disc Model, developed by Harvard psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston in the 1920’s (learn more in the Disc Personality Testing Blog).

a diagram comparing and contrasting personalities within the DISC model

taken from Discovery Report

 

Keep Calm and Read On
Now, I know some of us are skeptical and do not like the idea of putting people into boxes. Rest assured, the summaries above have certainly been oversimplified, and the truth is that most of us exhibit characteristics that fall under all of the temperaments (or perhaps, at the very least, two). I can’t say whether the temperaments are the best personality model, or why they exist (if only in our minds), but I can say that this knowledge has improved my understanding of myself and others. For example, knowing that Angel is primarily a Popular Sanguine, I’ll be more understanding if he forgets to bring me something because he was wrapped up in conversation along the way. (As for me, I’m predominantly a Perfect Melancholy. I may elaborate on my experience more in a future post.)

If you are interested in taking these theories into consideration, I would advise you to use them as a guideline, rather than a standard. If you know of any promising personality quizzes, please feel free to comment the links (and/or results) below!

Lost in Transit–and Translation

by Robine Jean-Pierre

a subway station filled with commuters

provided by PREP blog

Have you ever been approached by someone who does not speak much English, asking for help or directions? Have you ever felt flustered as you searched for the right words to convey your response clearly, looking desperately into that person’s eyes for a glint of recognition and understanding?

This occurs rather often for me; living in New York City, I frequently come across people from all over the world, especially in the subway. As my fiancé Angel loves to say, “The MTA brings people together.” I enjoy helping others in general, particularly travelers wanting to know MTA-related information; I figure that if I’ve lived here all my life, I owe them at least that much! However, when language becomes a hindrance in reaching that goal, it can certainly be a challenge, but I do not give up easily.

One night, Angel and I were returning to Brooklyn after babysitting for my sister in Harlem. After some late night service changes complicated our initial plans, we found an alternative route to the nearest train station. I had just finished adding money to my MetroCard when I noticed a man accompanied by two women standing at the adjacent ATM machine. He held out a MetroCard and five dollar bill to me, asking, “Can put money on card?” He had already failed a few attempts at doing it himself, having tried to dip the MetroCard rather than sliding it in and letting the machine grab it.

I took both from him, but the next problem was unexpected: when I inserted his card, the screen read, “Card invalid. Please remove your card.” I was puzzled; it had not expired yet, and it did not have any apparent distinctions from a regular card.

“It’s not working,” I said, partly to myself, partly to Angel who was watching over my shoulder, and partly to my guests. Swiping it at the nearby card reader machine did not make the problem any clearer. Angel and I searched our personal belongings for an extra MetroCard but could not come up with one. Unfortunately, they would have to buy a new one.

“This card is not working… do you have one more dollar?” I gestured, but they cluelessly responded, “No… English.” I knew some French and Spanish but I could only guess that they spoke neither, so I didn’t offer a “Parlez-vous français?” or “Hablan ustedes español?” I likely would have been too nervous to speak coherently anyway.

Determined to help them get on their way, I quickly got my wallet out. Once more I tapped away at the touch screen, chose the “New Card” option and manually typed in $5.00, but we hit yet another roadblock: apparently, $5.00 was not a valid option. Really, MTA? I thought. What’s wrong with five dollars? Haven’t you troubled us enough? I went back to the selection menu and chose the cheapest preset option, $5.50, and now the grand total was $6.50.

Finally, I inserted the money due and handed the gentleman his card. One of the women immediately handed me back two dollar bills, to my surprise. I had given the $1.50 freely, not expecting them to give it back to me; but I did not want to appear rude or cause any further delay by refusing. He took his card, still hesitant and nervous, and they left the station (grateful, I’m sure, even if though they did not say so).

I felt a lot of compassion for them, imagining what it must be like in a new area, not knowing the language well and trying to navigate a complex and unfamiliar system. I’m grateful they knew just enough English to make their request known. Plus, it may have been indirect and delayed, but they did come to the understanding that $1.50 more was required of them. After all, who can go wrong with numbers? They saw me pull out the money and I’m sure they saw the big “$6.50” that appeared on the screen of the ATM machine.

I find the situation memorable in that, despite the language barrier, the task at hand was successfully completed. Because of this experience, I have an increased appreciation for all the ways we can communicate–not just with words but with images, objects, sounds, body language, etc. It’s wonderful to know that when one method is limited or unavailable, there is always another option; hope is never lost.