Communication: what a challenge! Relationships rise and fall on our ability to communicate what we think, what we feel and what we desire.

I have spent my summer trying to keep the communication as clear as possible for every team leader, every missionary, every contact in every country where our students were serving. Cross-cultural factors make that especially challenging. Let’s say that I ask one of our national contacts, “What time will the bus be here to pick us up?” He answers, “It will be here at 9 in the morning.”

Normally, that should be enough . . . unless we are talking about an American communicating with an Egyptian, Peruvian, Swiss or Chinese. You see, in each of those cultures, my simple, direct, easy-to-answer question has a different answer. In the Egyptian culture, a 9 a.m. bus means it will arrive anytime before noon. For our Peruvian friends, a 9 a.m. bus means it will show up sometime today. For a Swiss, a 9 a.m. bus comes at 9 a.m., not 8:59 or 9:01. If you show up at 9:02, you will miss the bus. In China, a 9 a.m. bus means, “What bus?” I have spent all day waiting for a bus in China only to find that there was no bus. My Chinese hosts smiled politely while we waited hours and hours together for this non-bus.

My married readers also understand the challenges of cross-cultural communication. Even after 33 years, my wife and I have difficulty communicating at times. The problem usually comes because I expect her to know what I mean, whether I say it . . . or not.

I have also seen signs that made communication . . . questionable. One day, I saw a banner at a mall reading, “Ears Pierced Half Off.” Did they mean they had reduced the price for ear piercing by half, or were they offering to pierce your ears half off? With some of today’s trends . . . you never know. Another sign read, “Ears pierced while you wait.” Do you know any other way?

Traveling to work with missionaries around the world, I see even more signs that leave me scratching my head. Like the one in a London hotel: “If elevator is broken do not use.” Or another that made me wonder: “Leave your values here.”

My mom, Lucile, used to say something that confused people. She didn’t have a very good sense of smell. In fact, she had a difficult time smelling anything at all. What you may think was a blessing could also be a curse. I was often at her side when she passed a department store fragrance counter. There came the helpful sales clerk, trying to get Lucile to sample the latest perfume. Squirting a small amount on a piece of paper, she waved it under her nose or rubbed it onto her hand, asking her to smell it. My dear mom always looked directly at the clerk and said, “I don’t smell good.”

Their faces made their dilemma obvious. “Is she telling me she has an odor about her, that she ‘doesn’t smell good’ and is therefore interested in buying this product? Or is she trying to let me know that her sense of smell has diminished over the years?”

Most of the time, the clerks figured it out and let her go on her way. That’s when I would say, “You shouldn’t tell people you don’t smell good. They can take that the wrong way.” Grinning from ear to ear, mom would look over and tell me . . . “I know.”

As always, the Bible gives us some good advice. 2 Corinthians 10:5 says that we are to “Take every thought captive.” Many people interpret that to mean that we take captive only the external thoughts that come our way. Good parents help their children examine what they hear on television or see online, giving them tools to help them evaluate the merit of incoming information. But we are also to take captive every internal thought, mulling over each one before putting it into speech. Your communication will improve if you stop . . . and think.

Scripture has more wise words to help improve our communication. Philippians 2:3 tells us, “Regard one another as more important than yourselves.” Mom and Dad, listen to your child and take a moment to understand before you respond. You’ll be amazed at the difference that makes. Real listening always improves communication, whether it’s across the world or around the dining room table. And that always smells . . . beautiful.