Do You Speaka My Language?

I know, I know, a guy named Giovanni making bad Italian accent jokes. It’s really from that Men At Work song, Down Under. In the song, the Brussels giant responded to the question with a smile and a Vegemite sandwich. He did speak that Aussie’s language, and more than just the verbal kind.

Everyone by now knows that a huge amount of communication is nonverbal. We’ve discussed it here several times and doubtless will again. What communicates successfully can seem a bit random, though – what works for one won’t for another, and a wrong guess will have the opposite desired effect. Frustrating.

Fortunately, there is actually a structure beneath it all that can make sense of it. A little observation, a little self-awareness, and a little selflessness, and things can suddenly be going in a much better direction.

You may have heard of it: “The Five Languages of Love.” Rather fluffy-looking book by Gary Chapman. Now, it may have been co-opted into the list of standard Baby Boomer feelgood literature, but the fact is, his premise is valid and his observations are sound. The idea is that each of us has a primary way in which we most naturally express love. It’s also the way we most readily perceive expressions of love directed at us. Most notably, it may or may not be the same as any other given person.

Here’s the thing: Thanks to that last line, the Golden Rule (treat others as you want to be treated) may not really work. Rather, the thing is to treat others as they want to be treated, realizing that this may differ significantly from what you want and need. Yes, need. Babies who are perfectly taken care of but untouched physically will die from that deprivation. In adults the consequences are rarely so dire, but relationships can and will die from lack of conveyed love. Miscommunication of what is “romantic” is so common as to be a cultural running gag. The Languages of Love concept brings it to a more basic level, and fortunately, one somewhat easier to deal with. Never mind candy-coated, sanitized “improving communication” – what we’re talking about is realizing that you ignore your significant other’s mode of thought at your relationship’s peril. But it’s rare that anyone really points out that honestly trying yet failing is a real option.

Chapman identifies 5 “languages,” modes of understanding love:
1. Words of Affirmation. Mark Twain once said “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”
2. Quality Time. This is about togetherness and personal connection, not just being physically nearby. Quality conversation, time to have fun together, exploring new activities together.
3. Receiving Gifts. The message here is that the gift giver was thinking of you and wanted to let you know. Expense is not the main thing – it’s the meaning in the gift, and even the mere act of giving.
4. Acts of Service. Doing something that is helpful or pleasant to your loved one will be noticed, if it is their language of love.
5. Physical Touch. A hug, a kiss, holding hands, sex. Research shows that positive physical contact is important to emotional health.

Few people, if any, use and understand only one of these. But each of us has a primary mode that speaks to us deeply.

The problem comes not only from speaking a different language (so to speak) but a tendency to look down on or deride those foreign languages as lesser. There is a difference between Mark Twain’s comment and the horribly insecure type who needs endless flattery, though they are of the same type; the former should not be assumed to be as pathetic as the latter.

To give it a finer point, it is more than foolish to recognize that someone has a given need and specifically refuse to fulfill it. Stupid, self-destructive, evil, take your pick, I have more. But it happens shamefully often. If you do this, the first thing that will come to your mind when you consider fulfilling the need in some small way is, “but they’ll just want more.” Well, yes. What happens when someone’s lost in the forest for a few days and returns hungry and dehydrated? Do you think a sip of water and a granola bar is going to bring them back to normal? The same goes for every appetite and need. And when it’s your own fault that they are starving, whether you knew what to do or not, you can’t much complain about the demand. It’s your fault. Bring them back from their hunger, or let them go to someone who won’t hold back. Most of the things on the list take little or no money to do. Once you know, there is no excuse.

Simply knowing doesn’t always fix the problem, of course. If you have no particular need for a given mode of showing love, you may or may not know how to effectively show it to someone who does! Fortunately, these sorts of “languages” are much easier to learn than the literal kind, and with a bit of practice you will be able to show love in new ways with a response that will amaze you.

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Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.