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A neighbor of mine refuses to communicate with me using anything but hand motions. While she’s seen me have extensive conversations with other women in her house, she apparently still doesn’t believe I have what it takes to talk to her. I know she can talk (she does so liberally with others), but when I ask about something happening on our street or about her general overall health she responds with vague waving and pointing. She makes me feel like I’m a two-year-old.

This happens more than I realized it would. People hear me stumble on a grammar point or the pronunciation of a word and instantly assume lower-than-average intelligence. I’ve seen women’s faces express shock when I talk about emotions or thoughts they didn’t think I was capable of having or when I show a level of intelligence beyond that of a five-year-old.

I can’t judge them too harshly, though, because I’ve definitely made these types of assumptions. Like when I was teaching English in the US to a class of immigrants. One of my students, a woman in her fifties, was not learning as quickly as the rest of the class. I’d tried different teaching strategies, but nothing seemed to help. I labeled her my “special student” and lowered my expectations of her.

Towards the end of the year, however, I found out that my “challenged student” had been a well-educated doctor in her home country. You can imagine my surprise.

Judging people’s intelligence by their communication ability isn’t just limited to cross-cultural encounters. Listen even a tiny bit to the stories of people who stutter and you’ll hear they often get labeled as “stupid” or even mentally disabled! How easily we translate verbal inability as mental inability.

As in situations of miscommunication, not judging someone on the basis of their communication ability requires a bit of a slower pace and above all, creativity. When I worked at McDonalds – my favorite part of the week was when an Indian tour bus made their lunch stop. The rest of my co-workers hated it. Besides the sudden requirement that we make a ton of food, taking orders with a language barrier was challenging. While many employees tried the “shout louder and slower” approach, those who started using pictures, pointing and sometimes even acting to communicate had much more success. It was tiring – but incredibly fun communicating so creatively.

Now being the one assumed about, I’m learning to communicate with someone who speaks a different language or has difficulty communicating or just “doesn’t have a way with words” while enjoying the chance to use my God-given creativity! Instead of assuming someone’s intelligence matches my ability to understand them, I’m learning to assume there’s something interesting and valuable behind their words.

It’s surprising what you’ll find!

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