Connection is central to our human experience and underpins our identity. Fostering connection creates a sense of belonging, which is essential to our wellbeing, as thought leaders and researchers, such as Brené Brown, tell us. Yet, as they also point out, we are living in a world of disconnection: political and ideological differences have formed walls between us, creating factions. In my own experience, we also create barriers based on cultural differences too and while working in the field as an ancient explorer, I have confronted these many times.
So, how can we pull down these walls and build bridges of connection? In my own experience, I have found that one of the best and most direct ways is to share from the heart and laugh together.
I’m Australian and in my country, we love to share a joke and laugh. It is also customary to give someone a nickname or shorten his or her Christian name. In most cases, this is done with respect and affection. For example, I am rarely referred to as Lisa – most often I am called Lise, Dr Lightning, Lightning Lisa or Legend. These names reprise important events and experiences I have shared with loved ones and friends.
While working on an excavation just outside of Cusco city some years ago, I experienced first hand how humor can break down barriers and at the same time, celebrate differences.
I was supervising a sector of the excavation and working alongside of a group of Quechua speakers from the local community of Salkantay. The men were quiet, respectful and very diligent. Initially we said very little to one another while we dug in our trenches. Until one morning, during our first break of the day, I found myself wondering how to say hello in Quechua. I turned to the men, who were sitting opposite me quietly chatting, and in my rustic Spanish, I asked if they could teach me some phrases in Quechua. They agreed.
Our exchange went something like this:
¿Cómo se dice hola en Quechua?’ (‘How do you say hello en Quechua?’).
‘Se dice Rimaykullayki’ (‘You say ‘Rimaykullayki’), replied the youngest man, a flicker of curiosity lit up his jet black eyes.
‘¿Cómo se dice hello en ingles?’ (‘How do you say hello in English?), he then asked.
‘Se dice hello o en mi país, ‘G’day.’ (‘You say hello or in my country, ‘G’Day!’)
This continued for several minutes and I could feel the walls beginning to crumble.
Then, an idea crossed my mind.
‘Let’s create nicknames for the field assistants and directors!’ The men greeted by suggestion with curiosity and began to play word games with me.
I had a limited vocabulary: most of the words I knew came from a Quechua dictionary or were standard words from research literature. So I started with what I knew.
I listed elements of the landscape first:
‘Hatun. Hurin, wira, qocha, Inti, chaski, …’
And then animals: ‘cuy, kuchi, alpaca, llama …
We then began to weave together combinations. Quechua is great because you can simply combine nouns together to create new ones.
The first one rolled off my tongue: ‘Wirakuchi’, ‘the fat pig’. Now, this might read as an insult to you, but in fact, wira, fat, is important and essential in the Andes: fat keeps one warm and alive in the freezing cold, and where other forms of fuel can’t be found, fat can be used, and was a primary source in prehispanic times.
As the combinations came, so did the laughter … four grown men began to chuckle loudly,
So I did.
By the third time, their chuckles became full-belly laughs, then hysterical laughter. It was quite a sight: four men rolling around the ground.
Before too long, heads popped up and over the boulder that acted as a partition between our trench and the rest of the excavation team.
‘Hey! What’s so funny?’ A team member asked, wanting in on the joke.
The four men stopped. The youngest replied,
‘We are teaching la señorita Quechua.’
From this very moment, my relationship with these men transformed. We had broken down the walls of language and culture and through laughter we had built a bridge of connection.
I can attest to what Victor Borge once said about laughter: it ‘is the shortest distance between two people’.
Now, some years later, I look back fondly on this experience and even to this day my friends and colleagues still carry their nicknames with much affection.
Photo Credit: Bo Lockwood.