language barrier

A Smile’s Value


It was pouring rain outside, as should be expected. May through June were the monsoon months in Nanjing, and the days alternated between being hot and sticky or torrentially down-pouring. Outside, beyond these monsoon winds and rain, a family friend of my brothers was waiting to treat us all to dinner (again!). The plan was for my mother, sister-in-law, Meng, baby nephew, Adam, and myself to meet at the restaurant at seven, while my brother would join us after he finished work at 7:30.

non-verbal communication
 This picture is a few years old, but it’s just as good.

It would be terrible to take the baby out in this rain, we all decided; however, it was already too late to cancel dinner and my mother and myself could not find the restaurant ourselves. Meng asked the grandmother of one of my brother’s students – who was waiting in the apartment living room until her grandson’s class ended – if she could guide us to the restaurant. Not knowing a word of English, she happily agreed to take my mother and myself – who in turn knew no Chinese – out in the rain. Why wouldn’t she? She had spent the last hour sitting with my mom, laughing and gesturing, not understanding a word the other said.

Two days later, my brother’s upstairs neighbor and her granddaughter – Spring – came to the apartment for a quick visit. Although Spring was only four, and again knew no English except “hello” and “bye bye!” we managed to have a wonderful time coloring on my brother’s white board.

Three days later, we all went out to dinner with Meng’s parents. Again, they knew no English; however, the mother-in-law could not have been happier to see my mom. The two hugged, smiled, laughed, and held hands throughout the meal. They would try to speak to each other, failing, and would then in turn laugh and gesture,

non-verbal communication

They say upwards of 70% of communication is non-verbal. At first I always shrugged off these claims – not realizing that that motion, itself, lent credence to the statistic – not truly believing them, or imagining that the percentage must be highly inflated. After all, 81.5% of statistics are made up on the spot.These experiences in China highlighted everything for me. Suddenly it all clicked, and I really understood a smile’s value. No matter where you go, at least in my experience, smiling is a universal feature. It’s just always warm, and happy, and above all communicable. I suppose that is a major reason why – on those days you feel storm clouds rolling in – a smile, even if just from a stranger in passing, can be so strong.

A smile’s value is infinitely more than I gave it credit for, because, after all, it is more than just a facial expression; it seems to say to everyone around you – consciously or not – “things are good, and you are part of it.”

That is, unless the person stops smiling when they see you…


4 thoughts on “A Smile’s Value”

  1. I should point out that while 70% of communication is non-verbal, the other 30% is split between the words and voice tone. I saw somewhere that the actual words are only about 7% of communication.

    That reminds me of when I was in Peru. We went to a club there, and, being a bro, I of course started dancing with this Peruvian girl. I speak just a tiny bit of Spanish, and she spoke just a tiny bit of English, but we were still able to have a good time and sort of communicate.

    1. Yeah, I saw a very similar statistic. I’m a little uncertain as to how that percentage actually plays out across languages from very different linguistic families with different cultural backgrounds. I know in Turkey, for instance, if you ask someone to repeat themselves they say it faster in an almost aggressive tone. This isn’t because they are upset, it’s just culturally ingrained that that is the appropriate tone to take.

      I wonder, how much talking were you attempting with that Peruvian girl in the club anyway? It is really cool though the multitude of ways we can all make ourselves understood to each other.

  2. i saw the same view when my (American) hubby visited my family in Indonesia. my mom and brothers knew no English and my hubby knew just a tiny bit of Indonesian, yet everything was fine when everybody smiled and laughed :)

    1. Aww, that’s wonderful. It’s really beautiful to see how everyone, for the most part, are really dedicated to sharing their happiness and trying to communicate. Thanks for sharing your story!

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