When we enter a new culture, we are aware that there will be cultural differences, and often think only of obvious issues such as clothing, dancing, singing, and religion. We all know that languages are different, but did you know that the way we use languages, the manners of language, can also be very different, sometimes frustratingly?
As I lived as a Balanda (white person) in a Yolŋu (Indigenous) society in Northeast Arnhem Land, I had to become attuned to these differences and adapt if I was going to truly make friends. I needed to learn not just a new culture and language, but I needed to learn to recognise that the way we use our languages across the cultures is also very different. I couldn’t just speak their language using the ‘manners’ of English, my language.
For example, when we of the West make an arrangement with others to do something or to be somewhere, we consider it a verbal contract – though, of course, we aren’t aware of that. Maybe I’ve agreed to meet with friends for coffee, so if something arises – maybe I become unwell or I get an unexpected visitor … I feel obliged to let my coffee friends know I can’t be there.
Our inner beings cry out, “Surely they could have let us know!” But you see, to the Yolŋu, it wasn’t a contract in the first place.
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This is not the case with Yolŋu. A verbal agreement is not a contract. For example, we may arrange to go crabbing, and at the time, it sounds like a great idea. But on the day of the proposed excursion, my friend might be tired because she didn’t sleep well, or she gets up to find that she needs to do the washing, or she needs to go to the shop for groceries as the family are starving … Any of these things means she just gets on with doing it.
So the Balanda turns up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready for a fun day, only to find no one home or someone sweaty from working hard and a “Sorry, I can’t come!” This is a huge letdown for the Balanda and our inner beings cry out, “Surely they could have let us know!” But you see, to the Yolŋu, it wasn’t a contract in the first place. It was something that seemed a good idea at the time – but life has intervened.
When I was in my first year of living at Galiwin’ku, I had a great working relationship with Wamutjan, one of my Aboriginal mothers. For two or three days a week, I would go to her place, sit on the ground under some trees and listen to the recordings I’d done with others the evening before. She would help me as I transcribed the texts, enunciating words I was unsure of and making sure I spelled them correctly. (She was good!)
My flatmate Di, who’d lived in the community many years, helped me to see things through the “non-contractual” eye.
On rare occasions, I would turn up as agreed, only to find that Wamutjan had gone somewhere – to the shop, visiting someone, all sorts of things. This didn’t happen often, but when it did, my Balanda inner being would feel very let down. After all, we’d made an arrangement! (Read “verbal contract”.) Thankfully, my flatmate Di, who’d lived in the community many years, helped me to see things through the “non-contractual” eye, so that helped.
One day, I had arranged to go and work with Wamutjan, but overnight had become very sick. As Di was heading out to the office on her scooter, I asked if she could go across to tell Wamutjan that I wasn’t coming. Di laughed and said, “She’ll work that out when you don’t turn up. Verbal agreements are not contracts, remember.” I pleaded with her, as it would only take her two minutes out of her way, and I felt bad that I couldn’t go as agreed. Di said, “When Wamutjan has other things to do instead of meeting with you, does she let you know?” “No!” “Well …” But Di, bless her, did go across to tell Wamutjan, and I understand they had a right old laugh about my funny Balanda misgivings.