I remember, when my husband and I were dating, he called me “gordita.” Gordita, in Spanish, is equivalent to “fatty.” I looked at him as I touched my waist and asked him, “How can you say that?” I knew I wasn’t fat. In fact, I was too thin, but I felt hurt and insecure by his comment anyway. He quickly reassured me, “Elana, in Mexico, ‘gordita’ is an affectionate term. It’s like saying ‘cutie.’”

That was just the first of many cultural nuisances to which I have had to accustom myself since being together with my husband. The next one was with my mother-in-law, who called me every day, three times a day. I felt like I was being interrogated by the KGB each time she called to ask me, “What are you doing? What did you do? What are you going to do?”

Communication has become instant, but it’s also become more difficult

Later, I learned that my mother-in-law is just a gregarious woman who calls everyone that she loves and cares about. I learned that my responses really didn’t matter, and the questions weren’t really an interrogation, but a means of saying, “I’m here if you need me. I’m just checking in.”

A hundred years ago, most people either married the “boy or girl next door,” or they married a relative. They knew the culture and family of their spouse, and certainly spoke the same language. Now, with telecommunications and rapid transportation, matches have become multicultural. I have Canadian friends who’ve married French, Americans who’ve married Israelis, Brazilians who’ve married Spaniards, not to mention myself, an American who married a Mexican. Communication has become instant, but it’s also become more difficult.

Through trial and error, and now years of experience, I’ve come to realize that communicating is not about talking and “listening”; it’s about understanding. When you hear a loved one or friend say something to you that seems to be invasive or hurtful, ask yourself, “Does this person want to hurt me?” You know in your heart that the answer is, of course, no. So why did they say it? I don’t know, but maybe we actually didn’t understand what was said, and you have to know that it wasn’t said to hurt you.

Sometimes we have to take a step back to try to understand the other person and really hear what they are trying to tell us. Even if you do marry your next-door neighbor, each person is a world of his own, and brings his own language into any relationship. Relationships take work, and it takes time to learn the art of understanding. But if you start out by judging the other person favorably, you’ll see your negative reactions fading away, and you’ll have an easier time communicating.