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Brilliant Gibberish

In South Africa we have 11 official ways of not understanding each other. We are specialists in using language, culture, education, society, class, history, in fact whatever we can think of, to excuse a total lack of communication. And it’s true; we do all approach things from very divergent and extreme places.

This is why I am totally in love with Gibberish. For those of you who can’t remember making up words and speaking nonsense to childhood friends, that’s what Gibberish is. It is actual, made up language, where the words are not from a known existing one. Bersti falgashon elepensy lunses.

We always do a bit of Gibberish in the improvisation workshops that I run. We play games where Gibberish is the only language allowed. After the initial fear, and usual sound effects instead of words, participants start to get the idea. It’s not what you say but how you say it, in the most literal sense of the word. A person’s intention comes across through all the clues that we miss when we concentrate on the words. We read body language and facial expressions. We listen to voice quality, inflection and tone. We use more parts of ourselves. We respond as if we had understood everything, because, somehow we have. When we are speaking in Gibberish we work doubly hard to make sure we have been absolutely clear. The most powerful part of working in Gibberish is being able to cross the language barrier for people who so often are forced to communicate in a language that is not their mother tongue. Communication is much faster and freer. And it is devoid of the usual status differences that fluency, or the lack of it, generally creates. Because we are improvising, making it up as we go along, we really have to hear and feel what somebody else is saying. We have to listen differently; listen for intention and meaning. We have to be there differently; without expectation or preconception.

We also have fun differently when we are playing in Gibberish. We laugh with each other. Our play is more innocent and our responses are more sincere. It’s hard to lie in Gibberish, or to read between the lines. There are no lines. It’s a whole new, much more open and friendly world.

Today I was rehearsing in the same hotel where I ran the improv workshops last week. I saw one of the cleaners who had participated in one of the sessions. When he saw me his face lit up. And he announced his joy at seeing me in a rush of Gibberish! What an absolutely delightful, affirming and delicious moment.

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Improv workshop observations

What an amazing week it has been to be doing the positive, active, affirming and warm work of improvisation. I have just finished a series of five sessions for a hotel who wanted to do something to bring staff together, get them to know a bit about each other and to relax, have fun and communicate openly and warmly. So, in five sessions I worked with a complete variety of hotel staff, from housekeeping to doormen and receptionists, and even middle and top management. Amazing.

Running parallel to this work has been the 2010 World Cup, which has a very particular relevance to hotel staff. Not only do they have a hotel full of foreign guests, they also have a great pride and patriotism. So, it’s been a wonderful time to do the positive work of improv.

Obviously it’s not easy for everybody. Shyness, nerves, fear, embarrassment and even status issues have to be overcome, or at least managed. I have to say that almost everyone did something surprising or fresh, and everyone definitely had a good laugh. The best part was some delicious and heartfelt feedback at the end of the sessions, full of smiley faces and warm voices.

Although I found moments of the work really, really challenging I also absolutely loved it. I love seeing immediate results. I love being totally present. I couldn’t wait to be there and do it.

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