By Lynn Ashby 11 Jan, 2916
THE KITCHEN TABLE – Ah, yes. This is exactly what I ordered, six beer steins. One and two, three, four and five. Five? I read the enclosed list: “Five beer steins.” How could this be? On the phone I had talked to the nice lady who took my order, my address, my credit card number, and about a dozen times we discussed six beer steins. In other days I have received the wrong size flak jacket and a painting by a starving artist who turned out to be obese. I’ll tell you what happened: the total breakdown in American communications.
How many of you last December ordered a Christmas gift by phone, online or semaphore and, when your order arrived, it was wrong? A show of clinched fists. I thought so. When you drive up to the plastic clown and order a cheeseburger with onions and mayo, no mustard or pickles or fries, and you get back to your job in the utility cable ditch, you find you bought a chicken sandwich with no onions or mayo but mustard, pickles and lots of fries. Placing a to-go order with a Tex-Mex restaurant is perilous because of the language factor. The person taking the order over the phone probably woke up that morning in Matamoros. I don’t blame the order-taker, he’s doing the best he can. I blame the restaurant manager for putting the employee in such a job until he can handle my Texas twang. It’s the same with some others I work with – the dry cleaning lady (Vietnamese), the yardman (Honduran) and my upstairs maid (Boston). They can’t master the King’s English. Speaking of which, there are entire scenes in “Downton Abbey” that I can’t understand.
As Strother Martin told Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” We don’t have to look far to see, or hear, the problem. Men (this never happens to women), you are in the gazebo in your back yard and you hear your wife in the solarium saying something like, “The eggplants are rated grater this season.” That’s nice to know. Later at dinner she says, “You didn’t put the eggs in the refrigerator like I asked when you were in the gazebo.” You are backing down the driveway and your wife turns to you and says, “Terrible about the Flipflops’ dog. Just terrible.” I ask what about the Flipflops’ dog? She sighs and says, “I told you all about it this afternoon, when you were at your desk on the phone, arguing with some woman about beer steins while practicing on your bagpipe. You just don’t listen.” Have you ever tried to communicate with your teenaged children? It’s like, you know, like totally awesome, and the ever present: “You are so embarrassing me.” That usually ends the conversation. Or talk to a techie? I go into the computer store with a broken laptop. A pimply-faced youth hits a few keys, then rolls his eyes condescendingly, “Your semi-load thartsom won’t interface with the dorfor disk.” Of course. It can be worse. It’s late at night and your computer blows. You call technical support. “A-low. Dis iz Dale John. How help you?” He’s wide awake because it’s noon in Bangladesh.
Then there is governmental gobbledygook which makes communications impossible. In September of 2004 when NASA’s $264-million Genesis spacecraft smashed into the Utah desert rather than gently parachuting down with invaluable samples from the heavens as planned, a space official said the screw-up was an “unquantified scientific degradation.” I’ll have this decoded immediately. Such an extraordinarily stilted statement may explain why the expensive experiment met such a fate – no one at NASA can speak English. (At least in the past our German scientists could speak German.) The military has adopted an acronymic language specifically designed to prevent citizens from understanding it. Have you ever watched one of those CSPAN press conferences from the Pentagon? “The CNPAC deputy COC told NukeCom that the DOD could not amplify either the USMC’s antistrike MadDog or the NAVMED’s X-21 HangTime. Are there any questions?” Yes. Whose side are you on?
You may remember this one. A few years back a superintendent of Houston ISD had a problem. It seemed that when the district’s leaders held a meeting they worked from reports, but most of the pages weren’t numbered. And when the pages were numbered, the numbers, or pages, were not in the right order. What’s more, often the page numbers were hard to find on the page as some numbers were at the bottom, others at the top and so on. Now, if you were to tackle the problem, you might send out a memo reading, “Dummies, from now on number the pages on reports: one, two, three and so on, and put the numbers where I can see them!” No, the superintendent’s memo read, “Please give immediate attention to insure (sic) that the pages of all documents prepared for distribution are numbered sequentially and in a place of optimum visibility. This is needed to facilitate our ability to refer to items during meetings.”
Journalists are supposed to communicate, right? That’s why today’s Schools of Journalism, J-Schools, are called the Department of International Communications and Media Relations (or, as the students write, the Depurtmat of Inturnashunal Comuikashuns.) But we still read about burglars when the reporters mean robbers or vice versa, or capital not capitol, and we have TV anchors who don’t know the difference in further and farther. Fortunately, neither do most of their readers and viewers. Did you know that there are no more bankers? They have been totally replaced by robots and recorders. Call your bank, and all you will hear are options, none of which scratches your itch. Our gap between speaker and listener is widening, and someday we will probably need computers to translate simple English, that is, if your thartsom interfaces with the dorfor disk.
Ashby fails at email@example.com