On a recent trip to Mongolia I had a great reminder of how communication works in small groups of people.
My brother and his 10- and 12-year-old sons spent two nights with a nomad family that had three sons in the same age group. The cultural and language differences could hardly have been wider. The boys were all sheepish around each other – wanting to interact but unsure how. The Mongolian boys wanted to wrestle (one of the country’s primary sports) but my nephews didn’t trust their skills and didn’t know the rules. They suggested a footrace instead – everyone participated, my nephews won and that led directly to wrestling,
where they mostly lost but had a blast. Then Americans taught Mongolians how to use iPods and portable PlayStations.
Then Mongolians taught Americans how to play shagai, a traditional game that uses sheep’s’ ankle bones like dice. The boys also milked sheep and goats together and helped make yogurt and cheese.
It was ultimately a very satisfying interaction – my nephews said it was their favorite part of the trip. They were able to share some of their expertise, were able to learn some new things and add to their skills in return, worked with their new friends toward a common goal and enjoyed a little competition at the same time.
What made it work, I think, was the giving and getting and the shared pursuits – things that make every organization stronger. Lacking common language and experience, it was the wordless communication involved in shared experience that was energizing for them. They each recognized they contributed to the exchange and that all of them – Mongolians and Americans – were better for it.