The key to successful communication is not what you say but who you are

Apr 28, 2018

Jeff Salz and Lisa Jaffe with their Ecuadorian friends.

By Jeff Salz

Stepping outside your home hemisphere can go a long way toward shaking you awake, down to your core assumptions. So can a short step outside your front door.

There are as many ways of being human as there are human beings. Each of us is a culture to him/herself — a specific bundle of distinctive perceptions, customs and beliefs. Culture empowers and limits us at the same time. We can easily find ourselves confident, competent… and entirely alone.

Communication is the key to connection and the re-discovery that we — you and I, Tibetan and Texan, Hindu and Hebrew — are all one.

If my Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and if forty years in the field have taught me anything it is this: there are ninety-nine times more traits that join us as humans than separate us. That tiny one percent is what we call culture. While humanity tends to respond identically to identical situations, situations vary wildly

Lisa Jaffe makes a new friend.

When we transplant our unique operating system — aka culture — from one place directly into another without taking time to sense that life here is different … trouble ensues.

Mexico is known as the culture of mañana. In Ecuador, no word exists for a sense urgency. In Ecuador appropriate behavior is all about the Three R’s: Respect. Relate and Relax.

Time here is a fluid commodity with plenty to go around. In a land of potholes and blackouts a compulsion to get things done ‘right’ and ‘on time’ is an invitation for hypertension, frustration and early death. Hurry begins to feel like mental illness.

During our first weeks here I had a heated exchange with a representative of the local internet provider — a young man whose absolute lack of customer service sense managed to so frustrate me that I delivered a impromptu instructive lesson in how to do things right. Somehow, in a matter minutes, I managed to belittle, embarrass and shame him so profoundly that we spent the entire next month in our windowless lobby — unaware of rain, shine or storm outside — waiting for an installation team … that never came.

When we finally reached an administrator, a voice over the phone informed us unapologetically: “It seems your order was cancelled three weeks ago. You will have to begin again from the start. Would you like to speak with a representative?”

A child in Saraguro.

“Yes” we said politely, both chastened and schooled. “Thank you.” Deep breath. “That would be very nice.”

Within days were wired in, saddled up and heading merrily down the information highway.

While there is no right way when it comes to culture, there most definitely is a wrong one. Ethnocentricity, the belief that our culture does things right while the rest of the planet is comprised of benighted heathens — will not only offend everyone we encounter but absolutely guarantee that we remain lost and alone no matter how accurate our external GPS.

“No one cares how much you know … till they know how much you care”… is the ageless adage. Countless articles and in-house trainings teach us which postures, gestures, and phrasings best convey that message. What manipulative foolishness.

The best way to make a customer, custom officer or child think that you care? It’s easy … actually care!

Open your heart and your eyes will soften. The corners of your mouth will turn upward and from your lips will be emitted words infused by a sincere affection that is unmistakable — internationally, inter-culturally and inter-personally. Find the feeling and the body language will follow.

Another new friend.

The key to all successful communication is not what you say.  It’s who you are. The body is wise. Millions of years of evolution have taught us to perceive at profound and subliminal levels. Allow yourself to be genuinely interested, express your self honestly, dare to be authentic. You may be surprised how often and immediately your openness will be reciprocated.

Most of all… lighten up.

Playfulness is the most elevating connection. Play is ubiquitous, present in the most remote cultures in every corner of the planet. Playfulness transcends even species. Even a dog can recognize when you are being playful and — after some initial hesitation — will usually jump right in. A little bit of goofiness and good-heartedness has allowed me to survive tight encounters with Himalayan bandits, Bolivian drug lords and, even once, when surrounded by an initially expressionless death squad in El Salvador.

I’ve met no one who demonstrates this better than my personal communication guru and life-partner Lisa Jaffe. Catch a quick glimpse our current world here in Cuenca Ecuador through her lens and you’ll get a feel for what I am talking out:

I thought I was putting on weight from eating all the fresh hot bread here and having a beer at lunch … Every day!! But I realize it is not that. It’s from eating babies. And children and old people. They are SOooo Delicious here I can’t help myself. 

As I walk along the river every day I consume and capture moments that melt my heart and leave me smiling from the inside out with of an immense gratitude for the decision made to move here. A decision that now provides the luxury of letting the day unfold and wrap itself around me spontaneously in lingering conversations, un-purposed strolls leading to free museums, cafes, tiny cave-like studios where artists sit hunched over their wood carving, fruits that appear to come from other planets sold on street corners, warm smiles and smells of bakeries at every turn, ancient churches that stop you in your tracks, demanding your attention — even if you have seem them a hundred times before, the river always reminding me to let go, trust and flow, and OH….  the sky — unpredictable and forever changing — always surprising me with her moods. I love them all.

The national anthem here is the car alarm — an annoyance in the beginning has turned into a wake up call to truly listen:  the rushing river, the year-round fireworks, children laughing, great squeals of delight from the playground below my apartment. The people at our front desk, keeping us safe, calling out a greeting to us as we come and go are characters in our sitcom and part of our new family here.

No, my Spanish isn’t good yet … but my heart communicates loud and clear. Everyone is received and embraced (a little to much sometimes). My insides now match my outsides. Finally it is easy to take that treacherous eight-inch fall from my head to my heart gently landing in a place where it is held and generously given back. 

When it comes to communication, love is the killer app. Not only that, it also makes every moment of everyday experiences so much brighter. Try it. What have you got to lose but your loneliness?

Jeff Salz is an anthropologist, adventurer and lecturer who recently moved to Cuenca with his wife Lisa Jaffe. He says he plans to continue his “expeditions of discovery” in his adopted country. He can reached through his websites, or

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