FOREIGN TONGUE: The powerful silent language of the body

FOREIGN TONGUE: The powerful silent language of the bodyThe tourist—let’s call him “Guy”—was irate because he wasn’t being understood. The Bangkok Underground guard was irate because he couldn’t make himself understood. Guy spoke French and Spanish mixed up, the guard spoke Thai and a smattering of English. Guy needed to get somewhere urgently and the guard couldn’t tell him how to get there. Well, he could, but Guy was too aggravated to listen.

I was on my way through the Underground to get across a busy intersection. There are three ways to do this: Stay on the pavement and wait for the traffic light to change and still take your chances with fickle drivers; climb the stairs and take the route to the Skytrain and then down the other side of the intersection; go underground and up the other side. Depending on where my head is, I take whichever at a whim. This day I chose the Underground.

I had to go through security and walked past this altercation. I heard Guy saying in French that he didn’t speak English at all. And I was going to simply let it go. But I stopped, thought of why I was walking: To remind my body I am an upright being; to remind my feet what they were made for; to get the cobwebs out of my mind and to hand out some smiles along the way. There was some minor shopping to be done—none of it urgent—so I stopped and went back.

From years of travelling and living in countries where I do not understand a word, I have a language knack. No, I cannot speak 13, but I get the body kind of language. I have forgotten most of my French, not having used it for decades, but my English is excellent and if I don’t understand the spoken, I get people to write things down. As long as it is in something that isn’t a squiggly line, I can make sense of it. I also always carry a pen and paper with me and draw pictures. In Asian and African villages, when I didn’t have a pen, I would find a stick and draw in the sand.

It’s good that the universe wraps courage and chutzpah in an unexpected parcel, or I would have had many black eyes and broken ribs in my life.

I walked over and first listened. Guy, with an address and map in his hand, was frothing his excruciating French and native Spanish, the guard was looking helpless.

“Can I help you?”

“Je ne parle pas anglais, je ne parle que l’espagnol et le français.” (I don’t speak English, only Spanish and French)

“Je ne parle que très peu le français, mais je comprends un peu plus.” (I only speak very little French, but I understand a little more.)

I looked at Guy, and at the guard. Then I touched Guy on the shoulder and looked him straight in the eye.

“Calmé, monsieur, calmé.” And I drew my hands down from the top of my head and away from my body, breathing out slowly, showing him to “let it go.”

“Oui, oui, calmé, calmé. Mais je ne …”

“Breathe… calm down… breathe.”

The Thai guard stood there smiling.

“Right, now where do you want to go?”

Guy gave me a piece of paper and on it was the address of a hospital nearby. He also had a map, and I tried to explain how to get there, but he wasn’t listening in any language.

Amazing how quickly all the things you need to do and the ramifications of detouring and how to get back on track, run through the mind. As much as it appears that we are making “split-second” decisions, in effect, we are not. Although we are only aware of 2,000, we process 400 billion bits of information a second. So, in splitting a second, 200 billion bits have gone through the grey matter.

I looked at Guy—a small man with only a bottle of water in a bag, an address for a hospital, a well-used map.

I looked at the guard smiling helplessly.

I beckoned to Guy, “Come with me.”


“Come with me.”

“I don’t speak English… nothing.”

“That is English. In French you say….” (Universe cringes, holding its breath. Angels have arms ready close to the ground.)

I made for the Skytrain, Guy following closely sometimes getting ahead of me, then turning back to apologize. I bought two tickets and as we climbed the stairs, told him we were going on an adventure. He looked at me uncomprehending.

“Aventure. Nous allons à l’aventure.”

“Aventure? Si, si senora!” Man, oh man … all these languages!

We got to the next stop and he then had to go to the toilet. I told him where to go and waited outside. Then we hit the streets for a long walk.

I could feel him getting concerned and it was making a hole in my aura. He needed to get to the hospital—why, I don’t know, but he needed to get there—and I needed to plug the hole before compassion oozed out.

I opened my eyes differently, now looking for a motorbike taxi to take him. It being the middle of a long public holiday, motorbikes were in the minority. And I needed a driver that spoke at least a smattering of English.

Lo and behold (lovely expression that) one appeared as if by magic. Actually, it was The Law of Attraction operating in overdrive. Showing the address and the map, I asked the driver if he knew where to go and how much. I paid him and told Guy to hop on.

“Tu viens avec moi?”

“Non, vous aller seul, vous serez OK.”

Smiling nervously, he grabbed me, thanked me and kissed me on both cheeks, and I waved them off.

Plugging the aura hole, I walked thinking about how little of any conversation had actually been done through speech. How through body language, tone of voice and facial expression we had conversed need, concern, stress, compassion, assistance, calm and relief. Every time Guy started to get uptight, I would turn to him and motion with my hands, “Calm, breathe,” and he would respond and smile.

It’s all about attitude, how we walk, how we move, facial expression and the sound of our words not the words themselves that create turmoil or calm, distress or peace.

It’s not about doggedly putting one foot in front of the other, it’s about how gently we tread.

Jane Olivier
Posted by × December 4, 2012 at 5:44 AM


  1. David Hajoglou says:

    While working at Disney World as a custodian I was often called upon for directions to that most necessary of locations, the toilet. Most foreign guests knew one or more words that made verbal exchange easy (baño the most common). I recall one gentleman in particular who either didn’t know, or thought he didn’t know, any terms recognizable to me as a toilet, or he was just too bursting to think straight. What this man did have was enough self confidence to simply pantomime a penis with his thumb and intimate the act of urinating all with a very questioningly urgent look on his face. Sometimes the simplest is best and often the hardest for some.

    • I have to giggle at some of the “road signs” on the windows of taxis in Thailand. They manage to say in small line drawings exactly what behaviour is not allowed in the taxi.

      It often has me roaring with laughter when I see a new one. I should start collecting them and learn how to do them. Without words I will be able to show anyone exactly what I will or will not accept.

  2. Haha, miming always works huh! Makes for some fun charades too 🙂

Pin It on Pinterest