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A Universal Language

Diving Brings People of Different Cultures Together - Sometimes in Amusing Ways

By

photo of a scuba diver making and

The okay sign is an internationally recognized hand signal.

© istockphoto.com

I was nervous. The divers I was contracted to guide spoke only French. Short of introducing myself and demanding chocolate, coffee, or bathrooms, I do not speak the langauge. A French-speaking guide would brief the group, but after that I would be on my own. How would I relate to these divers?

At first, my trepidation seemed well-founded. Just getting weights for the divers and explaining the use of the dive lights was complicated by the language barrier. I relied heavily on gestures and probably resembled an anthropomorphic chicken more than a dive guide. Our surface communication problems not only complicated logistics, they made everyone frustrated. By the time we deflated and sank below the surface, my anxiety level was fairly high. After I had been such a failure above the water, would the divers even follow me underneath it?

I should have known better. Like most problems in life, our frustration and confusion melted away the moment we descended. Part of the credit must go the instructor who briefed the divers. He did a fantastic job and the divers were well prepared for their experience. Yet, the main reason the dive was enjoyable was that although we did not speak the same language, my divers and I were able to use simple international hand signals to communicate our delight (and organize ourselves) underwater.

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Fifty minutes later, having drifted though expansive cenote caverns, my divers and I ascended and immediately began to chatter. "Isn't that amazing?" I beamed. "Jau ju ja blah blah blah!" My divers responded, huge smiles spreading across their faces. Everyone paused and then burst out laughing. After diving together, pointing out cavern features and expressing elation at the beauty of the underwater world, we had completely forgotten we spoke different languages!

Now, our communication difficulties seemed less an annoyance and more an additional feature of our shared experience. We built confidence in each other throughout the dive. My divers learned to trust me - it turned out that despite the arm waving and gabbering, I really did know what I was doing. I respected my divers. Not only were they great in the water, but they were organized and took my directions well. Snacking together during the surface interval, we used gestures and giggles to interact. In bonding over our shared experience our initial discomfort had disappeared.

Were we all a little nervous before the dive because we couldn't speak to each other? Of course. But we all learned that day that although we came from different cultures and spoke different languages,  it really doesn't matter in diving.

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