The beauty of body language

Photo: Pexels

On my cycle to UU, I stop at the red light beside an old woman. As we wait for the light to go green, she turns to me and says something in Dutch that I don’t understand. Her face beams at me as she gestures upwards towards the sky. I immediately almost go to my default answer, a fumbled mess of “Sorry I don’t speak Dutch, English please?”, but before I begin to say it, I realise she is commenting on the beautiful sunshine and smile back at her nodding before the green light prompts us to go.

As an Irish person living in the Netherlands, situations like this happen daily. Despite my effort to learn some conversational Dutch from the trusty Duolingo app, I am usually left sheepishly smiling and asking for English. Dutch people never cease to amaze me with their ability to swap so quickly and comfortably between the two languages, a skill my monolingual brain will never understand.

But what has amazed me more than anything else since moving here is how language only plays a small part in the interactions you have with people. As I sit on a crowded bus surrounded by a hum of Dutch words lapping over each other, I notice the beauty of somebody’s warm smile to their partner, the cold distance between two strangers trying to sit as far on the edge of the seats as possible, or the timid looks one passenger gives another when they think that nobody can see. Usually, when I sit on the bus in Ireland, I am so preoccupied trying to catch the gossip that somebody two rows behind me is sharing that I miss all these beautiful languageless interactions.

This struck me when I went to the cinema to watch The Worst Person in the World. This movie is in Norwegian with English subtitles. As someone who is not used to watching foreign-language films, it took me a few minutes to get used to reading the subtitles, but almost immediately I was engrossed. Although my brain was processing the English subtitles, it seemed like the actor’s body language did the talking for them. I felt so whisked away with the storyline, the characters, the way they moved, acted and reacted to each other that not understanding the language was a secondary, irrelevant afterthought.

It has been more than six months of sitting in class, on busses and shops in the Netherlands. I have realised for the first time that body language gives away more than your language ever will. It is universal. A handshake or a hug can never be mistranslated or confused for anything other than what they are. Being put into a situation where I did not know the language and being surrounded by international students often leaves me hearing a language but not knowing what is happening. Before I came to Utrecht, I would have never thought that the moments when you have no idea what is being said are when you see the real beauty of people, their caring eyes, beaming smiles and of course, the one truly universal language – laughter.