Life, Relationships, Sex, Dating & Relationships

Alien Language

“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.


6 thoughts on “Alien Language”

  1. My sister has an intellectual disability and struggles with instructions much like your past colleague. Further for my sister, she also forgets people are not in her head with her thoughts and will start speaking 2 to 3 sentences further in than what she should have. There is no segway from her thoughts to her end point and it’s immensely frustrating but as Ive gotten older Ive gotten more patient with her and now just calmly ask her to start again, because she has missed the beginning of what she wanted to say.

    Your friend codes made me laugh and reminded me of two things that came out of my mouth recently that made my boyfriend very confused, then bemused. The first was I was making dinner and started chanting “peas and corn, peas and corn” which came from a past friend who I used to exercise on the cheap with, using canned vegetables as mini weights. We no longer talk at all and noone gets why its the chant is so funny…but all I picture is Bliss, in a bikini, swinging cans and yelling “peas and corn! peas and corn!” haha

    The second time I was making peanut butter and suddenly shouted “toot! toot! peanut butter!”. My boyfriend was really confused by that until i recited a childhood poem “Peanut sitting on a railway track, heart was all aflutter, round the bend came number 10, toot! toot! peanut butter!”. Once up to speed boyfriend thought it was great and now its been stuck in my head for days.

    Great post, very thought provoking and made me smile alot, for my childhood, my sister, and a once upon a time friendship 🙂


    1. Thank you!

      I’ve been using tin cans as weights lately, I can’t seem to find my real ones. I don’t chant about them though.

      I’m always doing stuff like that, saying things that people don’t understand because of stuff that happened years ago. Thanks for your stories, they’re really nice 🙂


  2. Great post, and a good reminder to work on our communication with people who aren’t attuned to our language and symbols very well. The same applies to sarcasm – sometimes I’m very sarcastic, even with people I don’t know well, because it’s my attempt at making a connection through humor. It’s when I see their confused reaction or think back on it later and realize, “Hmm… I don’t think she got that. Now I look like a jerk.”


    1. Thanks 🙂

      I hate when that happens. I get the same thing with a lot of my jokes, even when I’m not being sarcastic. People seem to miss the fact that I’m trying to be funny and think I’m just being dumb. I really need to work on that.


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