Family Matters: It takes two to talk

Communicating is difficult at the best of times, but a language barrier can also be a relationship barrier.

Couple (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
One of my most vivid memories has to be my visit, almost ten years ago, to a Dutch debating club. I sat there with my Dutch friend listening intently to two of the club’s best speakers debate vigorously. I was very excited to hear a debate in a language foreign to me, and I tried to collect what few words seemed familiar so I could follow the debate. After about seven minutes of listening, my friend whispered in my ear: “Do you understand the subject they are discussing?”
“Of course,” I answered.“They are having some strange debate relating to food.”
“Food?” he asked. “What makes you say food?”
“Well,” I replied. “They keep on mentioning crackers.”My friend looked baffled for a moment and then said: “Oh, you mean krakers.”
“Yes,” I said.“Exactly, crackers.”
“Well it may sound like crackers to you,” my friend replied with a smile. “But krakers is Dutch for squatters.”
This was a very embarrassing experience, and couples arriving from different cultures, as is often the case in Israel, face a number of similar difficulties.
Even when speaking the same language, there are many instances in which misunderstanding happens. Some happen because we weren’t listening carefully to what was said, and some because we all make assumptions regarding what the other side knows and remembers. 
When it’s a “mixed couple,” the chance of misunderstanding grows. This is because of issues of culture-bias and paucity of appropriate words to explain exactly what we mean.
It’s not hard to imagine, therefore, why these couples deal more frequently with conflicts based on misunderstandings. But that’s not all; in the midst of a conflict, these couples may find it harder to communicate their feelings and their thoughts. This is not just because they lack the proper words to explain exactly what they feel or think. In conflicts, the emotions of anger and frustration are often our trusted companions, and they make the task of expressing ourselves that much harder.
So here are some tips that can help mixed couples deal with conflicts:
Active listening
This principle can assist each of us in solving conflicts but is even more important in this case. Active listening is a communication technique in which the listener reiterates or paraphrases what they’ve heard in their own words.
They do this in order to confirm that they’ve understood what was said.Using this tool can ensure that partners are on the same page, discussing the same issues and bringing them closer to defining where the disagreement lays.
Don’t assume- explain
If you find yourself in the middle of an argument, struggling to understand what the other side is talking about, it might be due to a piece of information your partner neglected to mention. For example, your partner asks you to meet them at the local mall around 1 p.m. and you are a little bit late. They call you repeatedly to find out why you’re not there yet and you don’t understand what the urgency is. When you get there you see them sitting in a restaurant, waiting for you to join them for lunch. They are upset because they are hungry and you’re very late, having eaten on the way. You have no idea why they assume you’ll know they wanted you to join him for lunch. In certain cultures the time of day indicates specific meal schedules; in other cultures you eat when you’re hungry. In this example,each partner must be made aware of the importance of explaining exactly what the other expects.
What tongue works best?
In every conflict there is a choice; either you use your mother tongue or your partner’s. Your partner has a similar choice to make. You may speak the language you’re each more familiar with, knowing that you’ll be able to express yourself better.
You may, however, decide to speak in the language most familiar to your partner knowing that it will make them feel more comfortable and help them understand better what you mean to say.
Whatever you decide, be aware of the pros and cons associated with that choice. If you choose your mother tongue, try speaking slowly and stop often to examine if you were understood. If you’re choosing to speak in your partner’s tongue, accept that you might not be as persuasive as you may be in your own tongue.
Shimrit Nothman has a Masters degree in Conflict Resolution and believes that like charity, conflict resolution begins at home. If you have any questions for Shimrit, please use the comments section below or email her at
This column is brought to you as general information only and should not be a replacement for professional advice.