Tag Archives: communication

Indirectly on Egg Shells


Americans usually speak directly.  They tell you what they are thinking.  Particularly Minnesotans value honest communication of facts.  But in Costa Rica, speaking indirectly is the norm.  One of the highest social values here is not offending.  It can become a labrynth of side stepping and hedging just to communicate and get things done here.  But getting things done is not the priority.  Keeping the peace is more important.  To do this, Costa Ricans often use a third party to ask for favors or to make inquiries.

For example, when we were in language school we convinced our conversation teacher to let us have a field trip to a local coffee shop where we would have breakfast together and practice our Spanish conversation skills.  It’s true, we just wanted to get out of the classroom.  The teacher liked our idea, but she asked that WE ask the director for permission.  We thought this was odd, since SHE was the teacher and HE was her boss.  We considered it her responsibility to go through the proper channels to get permission, but she considered this the proper way of asking for favors- sending a third party.

This happened again a few months later.  We had hired a maid for the first few months that we lived here (I didn’t know how to clean a house with tile floors throughout or to get my laundry to dry in this rainy climate.)  After we moved to another house, we didn’t continue using the maid, however another new family hired her.  One day I ran into Suyen (our former maid) and she asked me to speak with her new employer for her.  She said, “I don’t think Mrs. Anderson understood me.  I asked if I could change my work hours and she said No.  Could you ask her if she understood me?”  Suyen was asking me to ADVOCATE for her, not translate for her.  When I spoke with Mrs. Anderson, she said she understood Suyen perfectly and had said No to her request.  She wondered out loud why Suyen would ask me to speak to her.  Then I put two and two together and realized that I had been used as a third party.  Suyen had wanted my leverage of the power of connection with the other American AND she had wanted my protection from receiving a direct No again.

It was hard for me not to feel used in both of these instances.  However, I have since then learned to use this system of communication for my own benefit rather than always feeling like a tool that my friends use for favors.  Now I can skillfully navigate tricky conversations to avoid conflicts too.  For example, when I have a sensitive question to ask someone, I find another person who is willing to speak to the person for me.  Especially someone OFFERS to go talk to the person for me- I accept the offer.  In America we would say, “No, I can do my own dirty work.”  But here my thought is, “I don’t want to offend or embarrass this person, so maybe it’s better to let someone else do it.  They might know how to do it more gently and more appropriately.”

Because the Costa Rican way is to avoid direct confrontation and avoid embarrassing people, it can feel like walking on egg shells all the time.  I breathe a sigh of relief when I manage to escape a potentially confrontational situation.  I don’t particularly LIKE this way of communication, but I’m learning how to use it, how to adapt to it, and how to recognize it.  It’s part of cultural adaptation and it’s what missionaries do.  We try to be all things to all people and if that means walking on eggshells and speaking indirectly- then that’s what I do.

Word Mash-up


Man, that ol’ Tower of Babel really messed us up.  When God confused the languages of mankind, He really did a doozie on us.  I know a woman who can speak 5 languages, but most of us struggle to master even one.  So it just amazes me when I observe how babies are wired for language learning.  I see the 9 month old daughter of our friends learning to speak her Mother Tongue, Spanish, and I am in awe.  Spanish equals work to me, and here this baby understands some of it better than I do!  It amazes me.

Last week I had a weird conversation that really was a mix and match of languages.  I met a French family.  They know very little English and a little Spanish.  I remember a very little French from high school, but I have English down pretty well and Spanish trucking along from behind.  So between those 3 languages, we managed to communicate!  It was a shallow conversation, to be sure, but it felt good (in a crazy way) to be able to communicate with this French family.

This last month our school hired a Chinese woman to teach Music class.  She doesn’t speak English and this is a school where we mainly use English.  She speaks Spanish… sort of… so when I talk with her, Spanish is our common language.  It was the same when we were in Mexico.  There was a large group of families from the Korean embassy who sent their kids to school with MY children.  The parents spoke no English and I spoke no Korean.  When we wanted to communicate with each other, Spanish was our common language.  Their kids amazed me.  Their kids were going to school in their THIRD language!  Their Mother Tongue was Korean, they were really good with Spanish, and they were studying in English. Talk about some brainy kids!!

In all of these situations I have found myself literally STUTTERING in whichever language I finally pronounce.  My brain becomes like a plate of spaghetti with all these linguistic wires crossing.  When I’m trying to figure our which language to use to start a conversation, I’m always afraid I’ll go to say, “hola” and “aloha” will come out.  I swear, one day this will happen.

The Parable of the Ant Girl


Once upon a time there was a girl who had a strange obsession with ants.  It’s a good thing she lived in Costa Rica where ants out number humans a billion to one.  There just so happened to be a huge ant hill right outside of her front door.  This was a stroke of fortune for the Ant Loving Girl!

Every day she would spend hours upon hours sitting by the ant hill watching her beloveds go in and out, busy at their work, oblivious to her presence.  She would often take a sandwich out with her as she watched the busy ants, and she would carefully sprinkle the crumbs around the hill right where the ants were bound to find them.  When it rained she stood over the ant hill with an umbrella, protecting the ant world from certain destruction.  And every time she went in and out of her own house, she was careful to step OVER the ant hill and not step on a single ant.

One day she let a little ant crawl up her toe, up her foot and further up her leg.  It tickled, so she put her finger down into the path of the ant and it crawled up onto her hand.   She carefully examined the ant as it crawled all over her hands and arms, completely oblivious to the power of life and death that the girl held in the very hands over which it crawled.  “This ant can never understand what a great love I have for him.  He can never comprehend how much of a superior being I am.  He can never even begin to grasp the magnitude of my thoughts towards him.  He’s just an ant.  He doesn’t know the person who provides him with food, protection and shelter.  He has no idea how many times I have spared his life by not stepping on him.  He’s just a puny ant compared to me.”

In that moment, the girl realized that the only way she could possibly communicate her love to this colony of ants would be to magically become an ant herself.  Then she could go to the ant world and communicate in ant language.  She would try to explain to them what a Girl is. She would try to detail how they had been cared for by the Girl.  Even then, it would be hard for the ants to understand because ant brains are so small and their language is so limited.  But she could try.  Some would believe in the Girl, others would be skeptical, and others would out right deny the existence of Girls.  But she had to try to tell the ants the wonderful news about her great love for them.

So because this is a story, one day the girl magically turned into an ant and embarked on her mission to communicate with her beloved ants.  For a while, her story was a novel curiosity for the ants and it provided a nice break from their daily work.  But there were many ants who just could not comprehend what this new ant was trying to say.  They just couldn’t bend their little brains around the idea of such a superior being, let alone accept the idea that they have been unwitting benefactors of the great kindness of something called a Girl.  But then there were some who felt like the message of love brought real meaning to the grind of their everyday lives.  They felt like they had individual value beyond just pushing dirt around like a bunch of slaves.

But the story took a shocking turn the day that the soldier ants, sent to protect the colony, discovered this intruder ant-girl distracting ants from their work.  The soldier ants killed the ant-girl.

The next day it rained.  Giant drops of rain fell from the sky like they never had before and completely destroyed the ant hill.  “What have we done!?!”  cried the ants is despair.  “We’ve killed the Girl.  Now we are doomed.  We are left exposed to the elements and we are running out of food.  We should have believed her.”

In some stories the magic wears off after midnight.  So sometime in the wee hours of the dawn, the girl awoke in her own human bed once more.  She thought about all that had happened down in the ant colony.  She decided that even though the ants had rejected her, for the sake of the few who had believed in her, she would continue to watch over the ant colony… because she loved them.

“For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son that whoever believed in Him would not perish, but have eternal life.”  John 3:16