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On Communication

I had something interesting happen while I was shopping for peanut butter today.  (Edit for the sake of recall: this post was originally drafted on the 27th.)

I was shopping for peanut butter and this older guy came up to me. He grabbed one of the nearby jars of peanut butter and started motioning towards it. I thought he wanted some help from me, so I looked up to see what he was doing. He began pointing at the label of the jar I was holding. It was a jar of Natural Jif, but at the bottom, it stated, “Peanut Butter Spread Contains 90% Peanuts.” I thought he was making a joke about that statement, so I laughed and made some off handed comment – something like, “I wonder what the other ten percent is.” But then the man picked up another jar, pointed at it, and pointed at his mouth. It was at this point I realized the man was mute. I eventually also realized that this man was giving me his personal recommendations on which peanut butters to buy. I ended up carrying a conversation for a solid five minutes with this guy. He’d express something using his hands or his mouth, and I’d kinda interpret it –

*points towards jar of peanut butter, points to mouth,  mimes chewing*

“Oh, you like Skippy?”

*Head nod*

“Ah, that one’s not on sale though, I think only the Jif is on sale.”

*points to a jif jar, points to mouth, chews*

“Ah, Okay, so you you like chunky?”

*Head nod*

and so forth.

There’s nothing out of the ordinary about having conversations with strangers, but it’s rare to find myself in a situation in which my conversational partner can only communicate through nonverbal cues. What made it more strange was the asymmetry between the conversation modes. I was communicating verbally while the man communicated nonverbally through gestures. I’ve read it’s common for people to adopt the body language of their conversational partners in the course of a conversation – when one person smiles, the other will reciprocate, and so forth. That wasn’t really the case in this situation, but I thought it was interesting to bring up for some reason.

One other thing I wanted to bring up was empathy. As I get older, I become more aware of the importance of being empathetic to others. I was kind of uncomfortable talking with the man at first, but the conversation became more natural and flowed as we continued. If I were younger, I’d probably have continued the conversation until I found the most convenient exit point, at which point I’d give a polite “Thanks” and leave. Now, I’m willing to at least try to talk to others, especially if they put in the effort to reach out to me. I hope I wasn’t condescending, though – I tried to communicate while keeping in mind his perspective. I’m going to expound on this issue in relation to this TV show I watch, Steven Universe – it’s a central theme to the series, and gets big props from me for executing on the theme really well. Highly recommended.

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