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When Miscommunication Is the Only Way to Communicate

No, not everyone in Germany speaks English.
Stuttgart, Germany. (Photo: Jens Goepfert/Shutterstock)

Stuttgart, Germany. (Photo: Jens Goepfert/Shutterstock)

A few weeks ago, I was in Stuttgart, Germany, for a soccer game. If you’ve never been—it’s, well, it’s a place ... where people live. The main attractions are a couple of big parks and a few car museums. Some big companies have offices in the city, too, but to a tourist, those are big buildings and nothing more. It was clearly German, but there didn’t seem—had you, say, been kidnapped, blindfolded, and then pushed out of a car in Stuttgart—to be any easily recognizable way to realize where you are.

The night before the game, we called a cab to take us into downtown Stuttgart. (Our hotel was about a 25-minute drive from the city center.) There was this “Authentic German” restaurant, which also had an English menu, that we wanted to try. As much of a tourist trap as a place in the seventh-largest overnight tourism center in Germany could be.

I’d been told by multiple people that “all Germans speak English,” and while it’s probably closer to around 60 percent, our driver from the airport had done just that. (He also drove a Mercedes. They all drove a Mercedes.) But to be sure, since none of us spoke a word of German other than “Danke,” I wrote down the address for the restaurant in a notebook, so I could show it to the driver. Which I eventually did, only to be met with sounds I could not comprehend.

He just started saying the word "Stuttgart." Stuttgart. Stuttgart. Hell is a man shouting Stuttgart in your face while you’re locked in car.

As we sat down and closed the doors, he looked at the paper and said something in German. We said some words in English, and he kept speaking German. I looked at my brother sitting next to me, looked back at the driver, and opened my mouth. And then I left my mouth open, hoping maybe the right German word would magically come out, but also because I didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t frustration so much as a kind of dumb, momentary, and completely overwhelming helplessness I’d never felt before.

I guess this is it. We’re just going to sit in this car, this beautifully upholstered car, forever, speaking irreconcilable and unintelligible words at each other until we use up all the oxygen and die a deserved death.

THERE ARE ALL KINDS of psychological benefits of speaking a second language, ones that go beyond being able to communicate with people you wouldn’t be able to communicate with otherwise. Some research has shown that you, in fact, think differently when you think in another language—and often in a way that’s common to that country’s quirks and associated mannerisms. Want to better understand a German cab driver? You might want to think in German.

Another study, this one from the University of Chicago, found that participants were better able to make rational decisions when thinking through problems in a non-native tongue. The suggestion being that thinking in a second language reduces our emotional biases. Want to figure out, without confronting your own death, how to best communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language? Maybe think it through in whatever other language you know.

Eventually, after another minute of talking toward nowhere, the driver said something that I thought I understood, and I responded by saying, “Si,” which means “yes” in Spanish, which is the official language of numerous countries we were not currently in. I caught myself before going any further, mainly hoping not to offend the person with the three idiots sitting in his car.

Only, then he just started saying the word “Stuttgart.” Stuttgart. Stuttgart. Hell is a man shouting Stuttgart in your face while you’re locked in car. He looked at my friend in the front seat and said it again, “Stuttgart.” My friend looked back at me and said, “Stuttgart?” I looked at him and tilted my head, as if to say, “Uh, yeah dude. Stuttgart. So what?”

“No, is it in Stuttgart?” he asked. “The restaurant.”

I looked at the sheet of paper and realized I’d only written the street down, not thinking that somewhere 10 miles away might have a different zip code or town name, or that, you know, a cab might be willing to take us somewhere outside of Stuttgart.

MISCOMMUNICATION SEEMS LIKE THE wrong word to describe this situation. You might even say that miscommunication is the most common form of communication. Unless something’s perfectly communicated—a rarity in a pre-brain-syncing society—there’s always some miscommunication.

“The borderline between what is communicated and what is miscommunicated cannot be split up and partitioned in two separate and discrete fields,” the authors of a 2001 book, Say Not to Say: New Perspectives on Miscommunication, write. “Crudely put, we do not believe that miscommunication is simply a communication failure, since, in our opinion, a failure involves a sort of arrest of the communicative exchange.”

Not knowing how to talk to another person, then, is a much more accurate or sympathetic version of communication—you both know that you both know nothing—than memorizing a few German words that probably would’ve sidestepped a fleeting and completely avoidable existential crisis but also sort of turned a person into a component of a self-driving foreign car. For some reason, though, I doubt the driver saw it this way.

“Yes," I finally said, "Stuttgart,” giving the driver a thumbs up, too eager to consider whether or not that motion was a universal gesture.

He nodded his head and readied the car, switching it out of park. Before pulling away from the hotel, he looked over his shoulder at me, leaned his head back as he took a breath in, and said it a final time: “Stuttgart.”