image shows hands holding a leaf to demonstrate the intricacy and reflect on intercultural communication

It’s autumn here in Brussels and I’ve become obsessed with the changing colors of the leaves. I grew up in Texas, we didn’t really have fall like this – the vibrancy and complexity of colors covering every inch, from the tip-tops of the trees to the carpet being laid beneath our feet. Incidentally, I’m also knee deep in the process of navigating intercultural communication.

This change of seasons is happening right at the time when I’m beginning to settle in to a new language, a new culture and a new way of doing things. It’s an interesting backdrop for the experience of trying to communicate in my new home. I’m noticing how being drawn to the intricacy of the changing leaves mirrors the way in which I’m communicating between cultures. It provides an important metaphor for best practices in approaching the experience of intercultural communication.

So what does watching the changing leaves teach us about intercultural communication and how we connect between worlds?

Vibrancy invites curiosity.

There are so many questions we can ask about why things are the way that they are. Why do the bottom leaves begin to change before the top ones? How do so many colors exist on the same tree? Why do some leaves fall quickly and others hang on?

The same can be said for stepping into a new culture. When we communicate from a place of curiosity we open ourselves up to wonder and creativity. We step back from making definitive conclusions, assumptions and judgments and instead replace those responses with wonder and questions. When we engage with curiosity we seek to understand.

The slow process teaches us to keep going.

The leaves have been changing for weeks now. Each time I go outside there are more and more on the ground, fewer holding tight against the incoming winter wind. The colors went from green, to yellow, to red. Some almost seem to be moving in reverse. There is no rush to it. It is a natural unfolding of nature as it’s meant to be.

This is the ideal way to approach our settling in to a new culture. Our initial arrival and interactions with people whose worldview may be different from our own cannot be pushed to meet our own timeline. There is time to observe without inserting our own point of view, culture or norms. Some days will come easily – we’ll simply know we’ve stumbled upon on intercultural victory. Other times we’ll take a step back, confused by a faux pas or our lack of language. The unfolding of the mystery of a new place takes its own sweet time.

We learn to look in unexpected places.

I find one of the most breath-taking aspects of the fall colors is the way in which they surround us. They show up in so many unexpected places. It’s not just about the trees, it’s about each individual leaf, each path and the way in which the fallen leaves soak up the earth or melt into the puddles on the sidewalk. Some hang from shrubbery, never having completed their descent. Others flutter around us as we drive – like a kaleidoscope of monarch butterflies.

It is like this when we’re learning to communicate and make our way in a new culture as well. Once we decide we’ve seen what we need to see, once we think we know all that there is to know – then the door is closed to deeper learning. Bridging our lives between cultures requires us to always look up, down and side to side for the moments, traditions, customs and language nuance we haven’t seen.

We practice being gentle.

Frequently this season I’ve stopped and bent down to pick up a particularly pretty leaf. I hold it gently by the stem and twirl it around, looking for the patterns and soaking up the array of colors. Liking smelling a flower or allowing the sand at the beach to sift through my fingers, there is a natural stillness that comes over me when I look at a leaf. Connecting with the natural world invites us to be gentle and conscientious, to look, without manipulation, at the tiniest attributes of the thing before our eyes.

Learning to make our way between cultures can be difficult. There are so many ups and downs. We can be critical and impatient with people from our host culture when they don’t conform to our norms and standards. And, we can be harsh towards ourselves for our faults and our clumsy misunderstandings. When we connect to this metaphor of the changing leaf, we see that one of the most powerful skills we can bring to the experience of intercultural communication is in being compassionate and gentle. We turn over what we see in our mind’s eye and in our hearts, using our intuition along with our insight to navigate complexity.

What do you think? What inspiration do you draw from the natural world to inspire your life between worlds?

I’ll leave you with this reflection from writer Sue Monk Kidd…

Crisis, change, all the myriad upheavals that blister the spirit and leave us groping – they aren’t voices simply of pain but also of creativity. And if we would only listen, we might hear such times beckoning us to a season of waiting, to the place of fertile emptiness.

Sue Monk Kidd from When the Heart Waits
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