A few years ago, an opportunity allowed me to spend a couple of weeks in the country of Bolivia. A key motivation for the visit, apart from the fact that I love to explore the world, was to meet Friends leaders there and ascertain if there were bridges to be built between them and the school where I worked at the time. It was a tremendously enriching experience.
Bolivia is a country where colors are vibrant. Its people are industrious and entrepreneurial. Life in the city seems always to be on the move, whether on foot or by minibus. Cholas set up shop on crowded sidewalks, selling their wares to passersby. Their distinctive dress, and even the placement of their bowler hats, conveyed important cues to those who knew how to read them. I couldn’t help but admire them even though I didn’t begin to know how to understand them, or even if I was permitted to approach them for conversation.
Reading, as you know, is an acquired skill. This is true whether we’re speaking of books, newspapers, or social and cultural cues. There was a time when the only cues I knew of accompanied pool tables. If life seemed simpler then, it was only because I was clueless due to being “cue-less.” Recognizing and paying attention to signals is an essential part of learning to navigate our surroundings, especially new ones. Particularly when what we encounter doesn’t match our expectations, they are indispensable for making sense out of the world and guiding next steps in interactions!
On one of the days there in Bolivia, a friend who had helped arrange some of my visits and I arrived at the home of a young pastor whom she wanted me to meet. He had not yet returned from the day’s activities when we knocked on his door, but his two young children invited us into their home. While we waited in the living room for their father’s return, the children did what youngsters are prone to do. They entertained their guests, partly by their innocent investigation of these strangers in their midst. The young son, maybe four or five years old, summoned the courage to stand closer to the couch where I sat. He stood for several minutes staring, head cocked, with a hint of marvel and curiosity in his eyes. Was it my skin color that fascinated him, I wondered? Or perhaps it was my beard that elicited a lot of attention? I remembered from a visit to China that facial hair could draw interest, complete with requests for permission to touch it; so, this wouldn’t be the first time my beard had been a novelty. After a few minutes the youngster broke his silence and proclaimed loudly, “Tienes una gran cabeza.” (“You have a big head!)”
Of all the first impressions I might have hoped to make on this young fellow, that one was nowhere on the list. Who wants to be introduced by others as their “big-headed friend?” If social cues are designed to help people “read” others and react appropriately, I might have thought this was a reaction to keep to myself if the situation were reversed. If I’d been in a mood to trade insults, I might have retorted, “Yeah, well you’re short!”, though at his age that was to be expected, apparently unlike my head size.
You can usually count on kids to tell it like it is, or at least tell it how they see it. Plus, I know from hat purchases that my head does tend toward the larger end of the sizing chart, coming in at size 7 ¼ inches — not “giant” but also not peanut-sized. Still, it was a surprising comment to hear from someone you’ve just met, regardless of their age.
Taken at face value, a person could be offended by such a remark. I’ve known people to go ballistic over much less. Honestly, though, kids require a little time to learn how to filter their thoughts. (So do adults, sometimes!). As for me, I couldn’t help but laugh at his comment—loudly–leaving him a little startled. I was a guest in his country, not to mention his living room, so I just rolled with the dialogue. I explained that my large head was necessary because I had a very big brain that was full of smart stuff. From the look on his face, I’m not certain that he bought the explanation but it helped end the discussion.
Later when the time came for me to get off the couch, I rose and stood next to him. His response was to scream and run, saying as he did, “Ahh, es un gigante!” (He’s a giant!) Again, a filter might have been in order! I stand about 6’1 ½ inches. Not a giant by most standards, but I must confess I recall standing in baggage claim on my first trip to a Central American country looking over the crowd of people and thinking, “Wow, I appear to be a bigger man here than I am back home.” Things balanced out later while standing in a similar setting with a group of Scandinavians, who all appeared to be about 6’5”, thin, and blond. At the moment, I couldn’t recall a time I had felt so short. But for a brief moment that day in a living room on another continent, in the eyes of my young Bolivian friend, I may as well have been fresh from the pages of a Jack and the Beanstalk tale.
These episodes remind me of those moments of decision faced when encountering the new, the unusual, the surprise. Cues, if recognized, help us understand the other. They help us respect others’ actions or points of view when they differ from our own. They even help us keep order by not overreacting to situations we don’t understand. Recognizing cues can keep the proverbial foot out of the mouth.
Equally important they remind me of how our reaction to missed cues matters. How do we manage our surprise or other reactions to that which is strange, unusual, or different? At least three common scenarios come to mind.
The first is to keep walking – faster. When the action isn’t recognized or unnerves us, we may choose to “get out of Dodge,” as the saying goes. Get through it and beyond it. Leave it behind. That may be my response to the panhandler who won’t take “no” for an answer and for whom no amount of body language speaks loudly enough. This reaction assumes change isn’t coming any time soon, is beyond our control, and attempts to put some distance between us and the situation without making a scene.
Another is to “smile and nod.” That is the advice my wife used to give my nieces and nephews when my teasing them left them confused. “Just smile and nod,” she’d say; which basically meant, “He’s harmless. Just humor him until he goes away.” Of course, she should know that is questionable advice. She tried that when we met and 35 years later, I’m still here! The “smile and nod” prefers to err on the side of politeness to avoid potentially escalating the situation. This is a “live and let live” philosophy that can work well so long as differences are harmless.
Or, we can take a page from the book of my little Bolivian friend. Just shriek and blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. “Big head! Giant!” Don’t hold back! But be prepared to roll with whatever comes next. Sounding the alarm calls attention to a person or situation. It invites others to notice, comment, or explain. It can be startling, bothersome, or even offensive – but it can actually create opportunities for dialogue and new understanding. My new Bolivian friend fostered an opportunity for both to occur that day, and ultimately learned that big-headed giant friends are nothing to be afraid of.