Kiwis talk differently than Americans. I don’t just mean their accents, I mean their mannerisms too.

As a social chameleon, I see their phrases pop up in my own language and approach while I’m here. There’s one habit in particular that both frustrates and fascinates me – the ubiquitous use of “mmm”.

“Mmm” can mean anything from from “that’s terrible” to “oh, really?” to just plain old “yes” or “I know / agree”.

The meaning is entirely contextual. The Thai have similar phrases, “la” and “na”, which are used generously for seemingly everything.

These types of phrases quickly become my favorite when I’m in another country, because they allow me to express interest in a conversation before I understand the culturally appropriate response.

They give me the freedom to participate without being constrained by expectations.

To date, that’s helped ease my anxiety around social niceties, but this trip, I’ve discovered something deeper in the “mmm”. A form of acceptance of what is.

Because when I respond “mmm”, I’m neither agreeing nor disagreeing. I’m not adding to your story nor detracting from it. In fact, I’m not doing much of anything, except for one, big, powerful thing.

I’m acknowledging you.

I’m saying in sound that I’m here, I’m listening, and I’m witnessing your experience.

I may not buy into it or condone it or even agree, but I’m allowing space for you to be you. For you to express what you want to express. And me to support that expression.

As the talker, it used to drive me nuts. I wanted affirmation, confirmation, and explicit approval. I wanted feedback and reaction – anything to help the conversation move and flow.

But “mmm” requires silence.

“Mmm” demands space for individuality, reflection, and consideration, all of which go against the grain of my compulsive desire to create a shared bond with you quickly so I can feel safe in the collective us.

Which is why re-discovering this simple sound has been so enlightening over the past few weeks.

Because I’ve finally learned to let go and let your being-ness sit in the pause between us, just as it is. Without contradiction, confirmation, or enhancement. Just as it is and just you are.

In receiving “mmm” back, I’m gifted my freedom as well – to be self-contained, self-referencing, and self-confident. To speak my words because they’re mine, not because I’m hoping they’ll be yours too.

And that’s quite a gift.

So this grateful Friday, I’m happy for the quiet moments of subtle recognition and connection without collaboration. For the space you allow for me and the freedom I hope I inspire in you.

Be free. Be brave. Be YOU!