Communication is a tricky thing – get it right and everyone’s happy, get it even slightly wrong and all sorts of trouble ensues. At the V&A we volunteers do our best to understand what people are asking for in a thousand different tongues. Many of our volunteers have language skills either because of nationality or schooling. Mine are pretty ropey but I’ve been known to dredge up the odd ‘tourner à gauche‘ or ‘monter les escaliers‘ from deep within my ‘O’ level French memory banks … and as if to prove that language doesn’t just change by country of origin but also by generation, I should explain for our younger readers, O levels are just an old fashioned version of GCSEs.
Much of our best work is done without speaking at all, making sure that our body language screams ‘hey, I’m friendly and approachable and I really want to help you!’ We have become semi-expert anthropologists, picking up the nuances of visitor behaviour to work out who wants to be approached with an offer of help before anyone has to ask – a slightly quizzical look, staring at the map for a fraction too long, pacing up and down looking exaggeratedly at the signs, animated group discussions with lots of pointing in different directions; these are just some of the cues to step in with a friendly ‘can I help?’
We have learned to be wary of pouncing on people too soon, interrupting their intimate moment of wonder as they walk through the door and take in the sheer majesty of the place. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only volunteer who has encountered the (usually!) gentlemen who are affronted at the mere idea that their map reading skills might need a little assistance!
Sometimes we get to witness great feats of non verbal communication, like the couple having a blazing but silent row in sign language. Watching from the sidelines, there was no doubt whose pram pushing skills were in question and who was wearing the trousers at that moment.
And sometimes people ask for help not because they really need it, but because they just fancy a chat, often wanting to tell us the special reason they’re in the museum that day. Two middle aged couples stand out in my memory, one celebrating their golden wedding anniversary who had even come armed with lovely wedding photos, and one couple creating beautiful memories in the time they had left together before the wife’s terminal cancer could take her away.
A couple of weeks ago, all of our language abilities were challenged by a Chinese lady who was struggling to explain what she wanted. She pointed to the sign for toilets and I duly showed her the way. She thanked me and walked away to sit on a bench, but something about her demeanour made me think I hadn’t actually helped her at all and she’d just given up, so I went to the desk to see if we could rustle up a Chinese speaker from the staff. No sooner had I asked the question than a passing member of the public piped up ‘I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life!’
We went over to the bench and it was a pleasure to witness their conversation and her relief at finally being able to talk to someone who could understand her. It turned out that her husband had wandered off to go to the toilet and she had no idea which one or how to find him. Suddenly being alone and unable to communicate with anyone had been quite frightening but here’s a chance for me to give an honourable mention, with his permission, to Henry Church, our hero! Henry told me that he’d learnt Mandarin at university a few years earlier and knew it would come in handy one day. We soon found the husband wandering further down the corridor and I couldn’t help noticing that she had a pretty firm grip of his hand as they went off to enjoy the rest of the museum.
Of course there are times when even speaking the same language is not as straightforward as it seems, like when our American visitors need the elevator or the restroom, but in the end the best form of communication is one that is universally understood, a great big welcoming smile!