If you want to understand someone, you must have the desire to hear that person. You must have the willingness to open up your mind, to open up your heart, and be prepared to receive the communication that he or she is sending out. If this open-mindedness is not there, you will not hear the other person, even if he happens to speak your language. You will close your mind, and no words uttered by the other party will make any difference.
If you have ever been a traveler in a foreign land, and you speak the language of that country, you may have encountered a situation where some person you are speaking to is not really hearing you. You may have all the words in your sentence in a grammatically correct form. Your pronunciation may be good. And yet the other person may be looking at you with furrowed brows, not comprehending what he is hearing. This is an example of a blocked mind: he can hear your words, but his eyes are telling him, “this is a foreigner.” And he may be the type of close-minded person who cannot, or will not, open his mind or heart to a foreign person.
Conversely, you may have noticed the reverse. When you first began learning the foreign language in question, maybe your abilities were not so good. And maybe you encountered a kindly person who did not mentally “shut down” at the sight of you. They seemed to follow everything you were saying, even though your vocabulary and grammar were deficient. More importantly, they adapted their speaking style to match your level of comprehension. This is an example of how an open-minded person behaves, and stands in contrast to what we mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
So this is the point: when someone wants to hear you, he will make the effort to hear you. And when someone doesn’t want to hear you, he will not hear you, even if you speak in a cogent way. His mind is not receptive to an encounter with a foreigner. This observation, I think, is an important one for us to make. When you encounter a foreign person who is trying to speak to you, you need to open your mind up and try to hear him. You have to make the effort. And if you find yourself a visitor in someone else’s country, don’t take it personally if someone mentally blocks you out. It is just the way things are.
I remember reading accounts of how the Romans and Greeks sometimes traded with the nomadic peoples of eastern Europe. Neither party spoke each other’s language. But this is how they conducted business: each side would arrange their goods on the opposing banks of a river or stream that separated them. Each side could see what the other had. And they bartered by just pointing to various goods for inspection from one river bank to the other. Hardly a word would be spoken; and yet commerce was able to take place.
Why? Because when two parties want to understand each other, they make the effort. They open their minds. It does not matter that they speak different languages. It does not matter that their habits, cultures, or ways are different. If the will to listen is there, then listening will take place.
The historian Ammianus Marcellinus mentions this form of barter in an aside in his history. It is mentioned in one of the earliest Western references to the people of China (he calls the Chinese “Seres”). The quote below, written in the late 4th century A.D., is also one of the earliest Western references to silk. This is what he says:
The Seres themselves lead a peaceful life, forever unacquainted with arms and warfare; and since to gentle and quiet folk ease is pleasurable, they are troublesome to none of their neighbors. Their climate is agreeable and healthful, the sky is clear, the winds gentle and very pleasant. There is an abundance of well-lighted woods, the trees of which [mulberry?] produce a substance which they work with frequent sprinkling, like a kind of fleece; then from the wool-like material, mixed with water, they draw out very fine threads, spin the yarn, and make sericum [the Latin word for silk] formerly for the use of the nobility, but nowadays available even to the lowest without any distinction.
The Seres distinguish themselves are frugal beyond all others, live a quiet life, and avoid intercourse with the rest of mortals. And when strangers, in order to buy threads or anything else, cross the river, their wares are laid out and with no exchange of words their value is estimated by the eye alone; and they are so abstemious, that they hand over their own products without themselves getting any foreign ware in return. [Res Gestae XXIII.6.67; trans. by J.C. Rolfe]
In the situation described above, two parties who had absolutely know knowledge of each others’ language were able to communicate. There existed a desire to conduct commerce, and this desire enabled communication to take place. I remember, many years ago, spending some time in a certain Asian country. I was not fluent in its language, but I was able to handle myself in basic social situations. But many people there were not accustomed to dealing with foreigners on a meaningful level. Even if a perfectly fluent stream of words came out of my mouth (e.g., in a request for directions), sometimes the person standing in front of me could not connect the words he was hearing with the Western face he was seeing. His brain might shut down, and he would scurry away, unwilling to have his preconceptions about foreigners shattered; or he would simply stand there in mute incomprehension.
On the other hand, sometimes I would encounter people who behaved in just the opposite way. They went out of their way to try to understand, drawing the necessary inferences from words and context. Their minds were receptive to foreigners, and they had a desire to understand. And this made all the difference. It seems so me that we should make a conscious effort in our lives truly to listen to others. We should open our minds first, and then our ears second. Instead of looking for reasons not to understand someone, we should look for reasons to comprehend the essence of his communication.
To do this, we must rid our minds of fears, phobias, stereotypes, prejudices, and preconceptions, all of which are obstacles to communication. If the will to comprehend is there, you will comprehend. The decision is yours.
Expand your view of the world with my annotated edition of Stoic Paradoxes: