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Friday, October 22, 2010

Body Language, Tone, and Cultural Differences

Riding the train from Siena back to Florence that was populated by a number of unique characters. Makes me want to write a story, or perhaps a novel about it. But that's for later.

Among the interesting characters was a group of young French travelers (I remember enough high school French to recognize the language, if not speak it particularly well). Probably all in their twenties. Enjoying wine and cheese (no, seriously), and generally being giggly, happy, drunk types. They seemed to be having fun, and not particularly bothering anyone.

Second group gets on a few stops later. I think (though cannot tell for sure) that they are speaking Italian. They are also very drunk, but much more in the loud, obnoxious variety. They drive an older couple away from the spot where they were sitting (mostly due to their behavior, not, as far as I could see, through any actual request). Some words are exchanged. My antennae perk up a little bit, because it seems like at least one of these groups of drunks is the obnoxious drunk type, and that type often leads to problems.

At some point, Team Italy sends their comic relief (a chunky, bearded kid with a wine bottle slung over his neck) to talk to Team France. Team Italy's leader goes as well. A couple of members of Team France come over to Team Italy. There's some conversation; I cannot tell what kind of conversation because I don't speak the language. At least one member of Team France looks less than thrilled, but not in an angry way. Eventually, they separate.

Upon separation, however, there's more conversation. Really, it's shouting back and forth down the train car. Which is obnoxious, but worse, it's confusing, again, because I don't speak the language. What I realize is that language itself is more than just words; it's tone and body language and all those other little cues that we try to pick up on, but suddenly change when you're in another culture. To me, the leader of Team Italy sounds angry and belligerent (I can't see him, and don't want to turn and look). Em says he's not. I try going by the reactions of the other passengers, but I'm not really satisfied with that method. Looking to the majority population for guidance is not my preferred methodology when it comes to staying safe.

In the end, nothing particularly happened. Team Italy eventually got off, and my own personal tension levels dropped. I didn't get the impression anyone else missed them much either, though again, it's hard to tell.

It did get me thinking though: in the PDR program, we talk a lot about the importance of intuition, reading body language, tone, and other non-verbal cues in dealing with confrontations. It's amazing how much not knowing the language and culture throws those cues and intuition out of wack. I've had some interesting conversations with some of the UK PDR guys about how there are some cultural differences in the way fights start there (at least, fights between men). Never really chatted about the non-physical differences before though. Something to ponder for the future.

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