“Assumptions are the termites of relationships. ~ Henry Winkler
Often when we speak to each other we make so many assumptions about shared understandings and experiences that we’re basically speaking in code.
This became clear to me some years ago, while working as an office manager, when I supervised a young woman with a learning disability and asked her to post a letter to a client.
I had typed this letter but not put it in an envelope, nor written one out for the letter to be posted in. And the young woman ignored me. She ignored me because she didn’t understand what I was asking her to do. I should have explained the task to her in stages so that she could follow them.
In order to post a letter you need to put it in an envelope, address the envelope, take the envelope to the post room to be franked, then leave the franked envelope in the post out tray.
That’s four steps to a task that I’d never even realised that I’d been assuming people knew.
But a lot of our assumptions aren’t even as basic as that. When I wrote the post Jealousy Does Not Become You, I made the assumption that anybody reading it would be familiar with Shakespeare’s Othello, the man driven so crazy by unfounded jealousy that he murdered his wife, Desdemona.
If I tell you that something is legen- wait for it -dary, or that on nights out my friends and I often play a game we call ‘Have You Met Chris?’, I’m assuming that you’re probably at least vaguely familiar with the TV show How I Met Your Mother.
Nobody has ever been confused when I’ve told them that when I go on holiday my hair always ends up looking like Monica’s in Barbados.
On the other hand if I were to respond to something bad happening by telling you that at least you didn’t get eaten by a crocodile on your gap year in Africa, you’d probably think that was a bit strange.
At least you didn’t get eaten by a crocodile on your gap year in Africa, is what one of my college best friends and I used to say to each other to cheer us up. It started after we both found out we needed to resist an exam on the same day that a girl got eaten by a crocodile on her gap year in Africa. We consoled ourselves over a liquid lunch that at least our day wasn’t going as badly as hers, and the phrase promptly became our shared mantra.
It was a part of the code that people who are really close to each other share, with their own in jokes, and references to things outsiders don’t really understand. The code that means that you can sit down with two other people who speak no other language but your own and be as lost in the conversation as if they’d suddenly started speaking Icelandic.
That phrase is now part of a dead language. Code for a relationship that no longer exists. The home-made poster it’s printed on a startling reminder that someone I now have absolutely nothing to say to, once used to be able to read my mind. A linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of fact, as Brian Friel more elegantly put it in Translations, a play about this very subject.
And we don’t just encode our speech. We imbue objects and images with layers of meaning that aren’t apparent to the untrained eye. For example, I have a funny looking owl; which to most people is just a funny looking owl, but to me summaries my childhood relationship with my grandfather. And on a far greater scale, of course, the depiction of a cross for Christians, and a Star of David for Jews, mean so very much more than any other representations of geometric shapes.
But even my cat does this, on some rudimentary level. Pick up the box of tin foil in my kitchen and she’ll assume you’re going to play with her.
Foil balls are her most favourite thing in the world after sardines.
But you see, with all these assumptions and presumed understandings, it’s no wonder that communicating with one another can sometimes prove to be a mine field of misunderstandings.
That’s without even considering the frequency with which we describe things by likening them to something more familiar. Which inevitably leaves a little something to be lost in translation along the way.
Cultural shorthand can vary significantly between towns and age groups, never mind between people who were raised in distinctly different cultural traditions. We would do well to be mindful of this when we communicate with each other. To be conscious of whether what we think we are saying, is the same as what our interlocutor thinks that they are hearing.
It’s something that I shall be very much aware of in moving to China. Where I know the language required to ask someone to post me a letter, but am largely ignorant of the code to unlock the deeper meanings that foster relationships.
But at least there I will be faced with something that I know I need to learn. It’s the things that we think we already do know that can prove our biggest obstacles to clear communication.