Two days ago I was riding on the Berlin train on my way home from a Communication Conference.
There beside me were two Arab-looking men with one of them playing some kind of music.
I listened closely and it brought me back to my months in Saudi Arabia.
In fact it was the sound of wailing from the mosque calling Muslims to prayer.
Now at the right time I love to hear this daily sound, so common in Islamic countries.
It makes me think of a whole population turning their attention to one shared interest in the sacred.
But on this train at this time I just didn’t want it; my mind was full, and I didn’t want the distraction.
I could also see how this might annoy others.
Certainly there are many who have learnt through the media to associate Islam with violence and terrorism.
So for some passengers even a quite symbol and sound of Islam might be upsetting.
So I approached the two men and asked them to turn off the sound.
At first my German got no response so I changed to English.
I then pointed out the rules and the impact of the sound on other passengers.
Most importantly I told them that direct communication about problems is an important sign of respect in German culture.
It is not an invitation to fight, but actually an action for peace.
For Germans direct feedback shows our belief, that the listener is capable of receiving feedback.
It shows our belief that the listener will not freak out, and that the listener can change their behaviour.
By also showing my familiarity with Islamic culture I was also able to relax our interaction.
It was only then that they admitted their refugee status, coming from Syria just a year ago.
Indeed it was clear to me how much stress and trauma still remained in them after their harrowing experience.
And I was also moved by their willingness to adjust to German culture and to the language.
I told them to ask Germans to speak in a slow simply way, like talking to a very small child. But of course with respect.
I told them that this is the fast way to German, and not via books, “I have bought three books on German, but it is very hard”.
Indeed showing respect in all our intercultural communication is key.
As they got off the train, I had to decline their passionate invitation to join them for tea.
Maybe next time?