Communicating in cruiser-land

Practical: People skills

Having trouble meeting people, or getting on with them when you do? Or don't quite know how to repel unwanted advances in a way that won't cause offence? Chris Sharpley takes some of the mystery out of effective communication in cruiser-land.

The kind of open-hearted cruising lifestyle described by Rosemary Jilderts (“This is the way we live,” CH September 2007) may well have gone, and that's certainly a pity if it has. Rosemary points out that a more affluent society has resulted in more people cruising for shorter times and not being full-time liveaboards as previously. No one would argue that our world isn't faster, less spontaneously friendly, with more bureaucracy now. But that does not mean that we all need to hide in the coach-house.

What do cruisers want?
My friends Ron and Suzanne were about to head off in their 13m cat Blown Away for three weeks. Travelling with some friends on board and in the company of another boat, they were going from Tweed Heads via the Broadwater and Mooloolaba to Lady Musgrave Island.

Planned around work commitments, Ron and Suzanne's trip represents the kind of cruising experience that many of us have. Be it for weeks or months, the underlying desire is not to live aboard full-time but rather to spend some time away from the rat race and enjoy the experience of being afloat.

When I asked them what kinds of social experiences they expected, their answers reflected their time constraints and could be summarised as “If it happens, then that will be good,” but the purpose of the trip wasn't specifically to meet lots of other people.

In terms of some strategies they would use to interact with people at anchorages, Ron suggested that he would approach others with some fish as a gift, and Suzanne said overseas visitors would be interesting to her, and she would make the first approach to them by waving or smiling. They both agreed that meeting in a marina or the laundry would be easier than at anchorages. They hoped to build interactions gradually and on the basis of positive responses from others.

When asked what they would like to avoid, they were agreed in wanting to preserve their privacy from loud and intrusive people and excessive approaches from others. They planned to anchor a good distance from neighbouring boats as a way of respecting boundaries and perhaps try to start a conversation with others while on shore.

So, what can we do?
If you are a permanent liveaboard, then you have lots of time to meet others and to decide who you want to invite to the barbie and who you don't. However, with a sizeable proportion of cruisers being the same as Ron and Suzanne in having to fit cruising into restricted time periods, what are some of the do's and don'ts of maximising the chances that your interactions with others will be positive?

Steps in meeting others

1. Respect “boat space” boundaries

Why is it OK to walk along the marina finger next to another boat but not OK to go as close when that boat is at anchor in some lovely spot and we are hanging off the It's the same when we are afloat. Just as there is a “personal space” around each of us, we also have a “boat space” within which we don't want strangers to trespass. The invisible boundary of a boat is several metres out from the hull. Going inside that is trespassing for strangers and may invoke an angry “territorial” response from the other boat's skipper if you are not known by them. If you then knock on the hull because you can't see them on deck (so why are you choosing that particular time to make your approach?!), that may lead to a gruff response simply because of the invasion of “boat space” by strangers. This may also apply with people we know.

So, if you want to invite the crew of another boat over for drinks, wait until they are out in the cockpit or elsewhere on deck, then dinghy over and stop a few metres from their hull and get their attention in a non-invasive way. Remember, if you approach and knock on their hull while they are below decks, you may be interrupting them in activities that are best uninterrupted!

The difference at a marina is that the finger isn't “our” space – it's common property and anyone can walk along it. So, in this case, the “boat space” boundary is reduced to a few centimetres, but the strength of the boundary may be multiplied to compensate for having to let strangers so close to that boat space. Be aware that leaning on a stranger's deck or stanchions may well be quite annoying to him or her although we may be oblivious of the intrusion we are making because we are standing in “neutral space”.

2. Common or “neutral space” areas

Marinas don't usually belong to a particular boat owner. Thus, they are neutral space and the jetties and fingers can be walked upon, strolled through and loitered in by anyone who has the requisite credentials – ie, whose boat is in the marina. Similarly, marinas have other facilities that are neutral because of their common property identities. These may include laundries, offices, toilet and shower blocks, barbecue places and lawns and paths. These are all fertile spots to strike up a conversation with someone who you have previously decided looks interesting, simply because these locations aren't anyone's specific property or space. If you are at an anchorage, then the shoreline represents such common spaces and can be an ideal arena for the first exchange of pleasantries.

So, having found a neutral space in which to approach that interesting person, how do you break the ice? Well, like a difficult bar crossing, it's best to scope the terrain first. Look at the kinds of things the other person is doing ð in other words, watch their non-verbal or “body” language.

3. Recognise body language

Scientists report that between 75 percent and 92 percent of our communication is non-verbal. One of these researchers (Albert Mehrebian) found that, when we are communicating about our likes and dislikes, we send seven percent of our message in our words, 38 percent in the tone of voice we use and 55 percent in our body posture. That is, we communicate much more of what we want to say by our stance, gestures and movements than we do by the words we actually use.

Some examples of different non-verbal language are shown in the photos with likely indications of what the person is feeling at the time (I'm not really that grumpy!). Be particularly aware of “closed” postures versus “open” body postures. The former are sending an important message that our approach or what we are saying is not welcome.

Perhaps the most powerful source of non-verbal communication is facial expression. Research has shown that this aspect of non-verbal communication is most effective in conveying interest (or lack of it) in what another person is saying. Look for direct eye contact versus half-closed eyes or focussing elsewhere ð it's a powerful indicator of interest versus boredom. A smile says a lot. If you aren't seeing one, maybe it's time to reflect why not. It could be they just aren't interested.

The non-verbal conversation is a major part of the whole interaction and noting it is just as important as checking out the wind direction and swell when planning to gybe. Watching how a person looks can help in deciding if we are chatting to a potentially kindred soul or just taking up space in that person's world. Always be ready to abandon the planned conversational manoeuvre if the weather signs are threatening.

4. Respect “No”

While a loud “No” is a clear indication that someone's presence or suggestion is not welcome, we also need to be able to identify others' reactions to us before they get to the “No” stage, if only for our own survival. Recognising the non-verbal cues mentioned above can help with this.

Once that verbal or non-verbal “No” message has been given, heed it! If you are on someone else's boat, then you are essentially in their “care” in terms of social interaction. That means they have a degree of power over you that might not be readily comprehended by you. Similarly, look carefully at the response you receive when you initiate conversation, whether at the marina, in the laundry or at the anchorage. Everyone has the right to refuse our company, and we need to watch them carefully to see and understand what they are saying (even if they aren't saying it in words).

For example, if you are anchored about 50 metres from another boat but the occupants of the neighbouring craft either don't come out of the cabin or, when they do, don't look your way at all, these are probably people who want to retain their solitude.

5. Listening versus speaking versus talking over someone

However, it's not all negative. We do meet interesting people who seem to be similarly interested in us. So, if there are no signs that our prospective conversationalist really doesn't want our company just now, how do we handle those first interactions so that there is every chance of the relationship developing further?

“Active listening” refers to the ability to send a non-verbal message of interest in what is being said and in the person saying it. Some of the key factors of active listening are: direct eye contact, relaxed and interested facial expression, open body posture and remaining still. These all send the “I want to hear what you have to say” message.

Of course, we all know that there is nothing more interesting to the rest of the world than us, but if we expect to develop a valuable and lasting link, then we need to actually listen to others rather than just wait until they are finished speaking so we can have our turn. If someone starts speaking over the top of another's words, then it's all over as far as effective communication goes.

6. Reflecting another's statement

Then, having checked out the lie of the land and ensured that there is a likely prospect for valuable discussion, and having received and sent some active listening non-verbal messages, what do we say?
One of the simplest and effective verbal ways of letting someone know that you are interested in them and what they are saying is to use “reflective listening”. The essence of this is to focus upon what the speaker is saying rather than your own words of wisdom in reply.

Reflective listening has several steps:

* First, actually listen carefully to what is being said.

* Second, wait for the speaker to finish ð don't rush in with your own ideas or opinions.

* Third, in your reply, use the opening words “sounds as if you . . .”, or “You seem to be saying that . . . “, or similar statements that focus upon the speaker and his/her statements rather than your opinions.

* Fourth, follow these opening words with a reflection back to the speaker of what they have said in your own words, using a paraphrase of their statement. Be careful ð a paraphrase isn't just “parroting” the speaker's words. That would be insulting and get you a dirty look at best. Instead, effective paraphrasing takes the gist of what was said and then rephrases it in different words so that the meaning remains the same. It's not hard ð just try practising it a few times and it can become second nature.

* Then, wait for them to respond to see if you got it right.

If you do it correctly, reflective listening can have the effect of helping the speaker feel that you have been attending to their conversation and that you value them and what they have to say. After all, that's what you would want to do in a genuine conversation isn't it? These are great foundations on which to build further interactions.

7. Possible topics

If you've made the opening contact and listened to the other person for a while, what do you say then? Well, there are lots of fairly neutral topics that can pave the way for more personal conversation later on, if that's your aim. For instance, I have lost count of how many times I've asked another skipper to explain some aspect of their rigging, structure or boat's performance. We all like (love!) to chat about our pride and joy and asking such questions can usually draw out the most reluctant neighbour. Other topics could include navigation, experiences at anchorages, weather (always!) and the next planned trip. Women (who are nearly always better at this kind of conversational starter than men), will instinctively know how to discuss galleys, food, being a crew member and just putting up with “him” when he is in Captain Bligh mode.

8. Remaining civil in the face of hostility

It's important to remember that, if people just don't like us or they want to be alone, then that's OK and doesn't constitute any sort of threat to our own self-esteem. Everyone has their personal preferences, and we need to respect them in the same way as we expect them to respect ours.

But, if it all goes wrong and you are faced with an angry skipper from the other boat, then just back off ð literally and figuratively. Move back, facing the angry person, make no fast or threatening gestures and don't contradict them, no matter what they say. As soon as is possible, leave the situation – permanently.

There are lots of good advice tips for travellers who venture into wildlife parks about how to react if faced with a threatening animal. Well, just recall that we are the fiercest animal in the world, and it's wise to avoid direct conflict with a human if you can!

9. Have an agreed game plan

There you are, blithely wandering along the beach, checking out the neighbours and getting ready to strike up the opening bars of the beautiful music that is conversation and Whammo! ð your first mate says she/he would rather not talk to anyone just now.

Even the most familiar couples sometimes find themselves at different parts of the social spectrum. So, chat to your crew about possible meetings with others before you start them. If you don't work out a joint game plan with your nearest and dearest before inviting half the marina over for supper, you may just find yourself meeting daggers and a very cool evening from the loved one.

Strange as it may seem, that special person with whom we are most likely cruising might just prefer our company for a quiet evening together rather than a cabin full of raucous hilarity. Similarly, gather the partner's opinions on the neighbours before giving out signs of being open to boarding. You might live to be glad you did!

10. When you just want to be alone

It's an unusual person who always wants to be with others. Most of us value those quiet moments alone, at least sometimes. So, decide when and how you will let that message go out without permanently damaging the future chances of company. The non-verbal signals are particularly valuable here. Even if you've spent the previous evening in laughter with another boat's crew, simply remaining inside the cabin or refraining from facing the other boat or making eye contact with them can send a subtle but clear message that should be heeded by all but the most abrasive of people. Don't feel as if you are acting harshly ð these communication methods predate the evolution of actual speech, and we all know instinctively how to interpret them and how we should react to them.

If this doesn't work and approaches are made that you don't want just now, the use of a low voice, even tone and assertive statement (“Thanks, but I have a few other things to do right now”) can send the message that you aren't up for it now but might be later on. Of course, if you never want to speak to that particular person again, then a simple “No thanks” is all that's needed. Most people will get the message eventually.

The important thing is to remember that you are the only person who can say for sure just what you want. While it's true that life is far too short to drink poor wine, it's also not long enough to be in unwanted company for any longer than is avoidable.

What to expect from the cruisers of the 2000s

My own cruising experiences over the past four years have shown me that there are great people out there who are interesting and fun to be with and upon whom you can rely if in trouble. I have met some fellow short-term and other permanent cruisers whom I would love to spend time with again if the opportunity arises. But, I have to admit that I have also come across some whom I hope never to cast eyes upon again! That's life and not really different to the kinds of experiences one has in any part of our society.

Perhaps that's the message Rosemary Jilderts was trying to get across ð that cruising is now no different to any other aspect of modern life in that we have all become a bit less open and trusting. That may or may not be so (I actually don't think it is) but we can maximise the chances that our interactions will bear fruit if we follow a few steps in respecting boundaries, watching for key non-verbal signals and using the kinds of interaction skills that we would like others to use with us. It's not rocket science, in fact it's probably just another navigational challenge!


Chris Sharpley is a retired Professor of Psychology and Health Sciences and now sails his Endurance 35 (Panacea) along the Queensland coast between various consulting and research jobs.

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