Speak For Love | Communicate For Confidence | Inspire For Growth


How do you express and respond to someone who does not speak your language or come from a different culture? Is it possible to communicate if both parties do not speak the same language and come from different culture? It is. I am happy to share my personal experience with you here.


I learnt of this method from my parents. Every year, we celebrate Hari Raya Puasa (or Idul Fitri) and our neighbours celebrate Chinese New Year, Deepavali or Christmas. Most of my neighbours were Chinese. Many would not eat beef or mutton. It was either because they were Taoists, Buddhists or just didn’t like eating them. We knew about this from the butchers in the markets. Sometimes we learnt them from our neighbours themselves. So mum would always prepare chicken curry for them. Then we would send food to their homes on the day.

I would watch her as she handed the tray of food to them. She would put on a great smile and said,”Hari Raya. Makan.” (Hari Raya, Eat) Our neighbour said, “Terima Kasih.” or “Kam Siah”. In English that literally means Thank you. Mum must have started this tradition of sharing her food with the neigbours during the festive seasons when I was very little because by the time it was my turn to bring trays of food to them, they seemed expectant and had already prepared Ang Pows (red packets with cash in them), fruits and titbits for us as a return gesture.


Nobody, except the kids, could speak English in my neighbourhood. Yet, there was communication. The kids could speak English because they went to school. Yet when we played, we did not speak in English. We picked up words in Malay and Chinese dialect as we played. Somehow, it all clicked. One thing for sure, the kids who could pick up new languages easily would drive the entire playtime with that language. In our case, my siblings picked up Mandarin and Hokkien readily; it was then convenient to just use Hokkien (the mother tongue of our playmates) while we played. That was how the kids solved the problem amongst themselves. The Society of Children prevailed. There were no rules, no organisation, just simple clear understanding of what worked.

Thus, in order for Intercultural Communication to work for you like it did for us, you need to have the following:

  1. Great attitude. Share generously and expect nothing in return. Once you have decided that’s what you want to share (whether food or time), do not hold back and make excuses to terminate or offer less than what you have prepared to give. My mother was always overjoyed when she handed food to our neighbours. Perhaps it is because that’s when the joy of sharing finally reaches its peak.
  2. Great courage. It is not uncommon to receive gifts that you do not need or food that you won’t eat. So be courageous to share your gifts and leave the decision to enjoy your gifts to the recipients. The thought really counts.
  3. Great patience and preserverence. It took my parents more than 20 years to penetrate through the walls that separate the diverse cultures in our neighbourhood. I say 20 years because that’s about as long as I spent the years in school, made new friends, learnt new languages and lived harmoniously with other people of different culture and races.
  4. Great tolerance. Could you still enjoy being around people who practise different religious beliefs or would you prefer to walk away from these people? Could you remain steadfast in your beliefs and yet allow yourself to accept (not embrace) the rights of others to practise their own beliefs. No drinking of alchohol for Muslims and no eating of meat for Buddhists for instance. I had great friends who would prepare only Muslim food even on their festival. No pork on the menu when we visited them on Chinese New Year.

Rome was not built in one day. Success at intercultural communication does not take one day also. You have to play by ear and use your power of discernment to get engaged. Sometimes it could be just as simple as chicken curry, like what my mum and dad had discovered.