Thursday, November 15, 2012

A pause to reflect

The Forbidden City
I have just returned from a week in Beijing. It was a fantastic experience! I had never been in China before; indeed, this was my first trip to Asia. My husband had been invited to attend a conference, and I tagged along, just for fun.

The Great Wall
His Chinese colleagues were generous with their time, and invited us to several meals. One even shepherded us through our morning of haggling and bargain-hunting at The Pearl Market.  But most days we were on our own, seeing the sights and generally self-navigating the city. Not knowing more than three word of Mandarin, I did a lot of listening. was especially attuned to non-verbal communications.

I rediscovered that a smile can communicate a lot of good will, and that the meaning of joyous laughter is universal. But what also struck me was the essential place of the pause in any language. My husband's colleague graciously took us to the best Dim Sum restaurant near the Lama Temple.  And when she made a phone call, she spoke so rapidly in her native Mandarin that it took my breath away. Only when she paused did I know she had come to the end of a very long explanation. In a tonal language, ends of sentences cannot be signaled by the downward pitch of finality that we use in English. And so the pause becomes even more important as a signal of conclusion. We noted this as well when we had to rewind our (otherwise excellent) audio cassette tour of The Forbidden City. The Chinese English speaker was hard to follow: was she still describing the Hall of Supreme Harmony, or had she moved on the Hall of Central Harmony? She did not drop her vocal tone at the end, which is one of the few tonalities we use in English (as opposed to Mandarin, where every word is formed by one of three tones). So it sounded like she was continuing with the same thought. But if she had paused, we would have known.

It got me thinking of the rhythms of communication, and how essential the pause is in any language. In German, the listener uses the pause at the end of a sentence to match all the verbs with the nouns that preceded them. In English and the Western Romance languages, the listener uses the pause to  absorb what has just been said. If we fail to pause, we are not engaging in the give-and-take of the communications loop, and we lose our listener.

When speech mirrors our speeding train of thought, it is too hard for the listeners to stay on board. And once they have jumped off, it is almost impossible to pull them back on. A pause may seem like a small thing, but it can keep you on track!

1 comment:

  1. We must get together and compare notes - we just returned as well. I agree with the comments about the English tour guides...very hard to follow. Three weeks in China and I only learned how to say hello and ok. Could have used a Rosetta Stone lesson or two before going.
    Welcome home.
    Nancy and Gerry Cooper