Most of us have that one movie that we can always watch again and again. If you’re flipping through channels, and it’s on, you’ll leave it to play while you finish your online shoe shopping and bill-paying, laughing at all the familiar quips and quoting the best lines along with the cast.
One of the movies that holds this spot for me is Hitch. (I’ll pause here while you go watch it. It’s GOLD.) Short synopsis: a professional “love coach” works to help men navigate dating. He’s slick, but his own best practices fail when applied to his love interest. It’s quirky, funny, and a great testament to the fact that even when we speak the same language, communication isn’t easy at all.
Here’s a snippet (admittedly, not a humorous part of the movie. Also, not terribly safe for work or for little ears):
“This right here?” <gesturing to generally effed-up situation> “This is exactly why falling in love is so g*ddamned hard.”
Why IS communicating so hard? We use generally recognized words; why is it so easy to misunderstand what we mean? I know language is nuanced, but honestly, it shouldn’t have to be so difficult.
Last weekend, the hubs and I were able to take a long hike in the woods (and no, that’s not a euphemism for anything, so keep reading.) It’s a pretty scenic area, considering it’s embedded in the middle of a very urban setting (You can still hear airplanes and the occasional Jake brake, but it’s nice nonetheless. Also, full disclosure – these were taken last fall. But it pretty much looks the same):
While we were crossing part of the river, we passed a couple who were holding hands and talking. While I wasn’t eavesdropping (much) I did hear that they were speaking in heavily accented English – which led me down the following thought path:
If English is a second language to both of them…why aren’t they conversing in their native tongue? Wouldn’t that make this intimate, romantic moment easier?
Uh, maybe they don’t speak the same primary language, you ding dong.
Yeah, shame on me for assuming, I guess. But still, the challenge of successful communication when you aren’t speaking the same language wasn’t lost on me. I mean, heck – isn’t the breakdown of communication one of the primary drivers behind marital strife and relationship conflict?
How can we get it wrong so often when we think we’re speaking the same language?
Sometimes it’s obvious that you shouldn’t take words at face value, right?
But as I worked my way through the week towards Friday, I noted a few examples of messy messaging and words that took a wrong turn. First up: my coworker. She works hard and has a great sense of humor (read: she laughs at my dumb Dad jokes). But listening to her just exhausts me. She talks extremely fast and doesn’t enunciate – and listening to her is like reading a run-on sentence. A short excerpt of a recent bucket of words she spilled at me:
so then I got a call from my mom and she got that job at where she was interviewing and I had to tell her to CALL HIM BACK because she’s gotta take that drug test or she won’t get the job and she didn’t call him today we were gonna look at cars oh they totaled mine and they said hey well this is gonna be a lil lower than you think he said three thousand and 500 is low like to me I was like ok well talk to my mom has the title and 3000 is pretty good it’s like a 2001 I think and maybe they need to call my dad because it’s the title I think his and the Kia was nice I guess like when Jenny blew her engine I sent her to Struther’s they’re a family and WILL NOT rip you off the other guy said like $800 to fix it but he looked at it and told her to go back to the dealer because it’s under warranty and I liked it
(Now imagine this behind a face mask with no spaces between the words. Whew.)
Did you follow that? She totaled her car (she’s fine, she actually talked like this before the accident) and she’s getting $3k for her old car, which she may use to buy a Kia. I think I got a recommendation on a mechanic and should congratulate her mother. I feel like there was more in that convo, but this is the best I could do. I just nod and smile and try to interject noises that indicate I have some idea what she’s trying to say. (So far, it’s working. Don’t blow my cover.) I mean, I guess I can’t argue that communication is happening, since I walked away with the salient points. I’d just like to leave a conversation without feeling like I’m at an auction afraid I’ll sneeze and accidentally buy the $15,000 vase.
So lemme jump to Coworker #2 now. A bit of backstory: this particular clown is one who has been with the company for a number of years; subsequently he’s overpaid and underworked, and while everyone on the leadership team seems to understand this, no one has summoned the intestinal fortitude to manage him out.
Lucky me, though – two weeks ago, I got pulled in to
save his bacon work with him on a project he’s been ignoring for six months tasked to manage. The project is to launch a new learning software, and supposedly, the go-live date is May 1 – which (HOLY HATS) is next week. And as of yesterday, barely anything’s been done – we have no classes, no data items (like employee email, supervisor name, job title) created, and NO EMPLOYEES in the system. I’m thinking I can upload the bulk of this from our HR software….but I need those data items so I know what to upload. His task was to identify the data items and find out what format the vendor needed. (For example – which fields are alphanumeric? Is there a specific upload template that needs to be in a certain format? Etc.)
That information was due last week. On Wednesday, I pinged him and asked if he’d received any information on this format. He forwards me an email FROM A FULL WEEK AGO where he thinks he has the answer. Aside from the fact that he sat on this for A FULL WEEK (#stillbitter), the information was completely irrelevant. I quickly forwarded the message to the software vendor (and copied him, since he’s, yanno, the freaking PROJECT MANAGER) clarifying what I needed.
And this douchecanoe quickly wrote back with – and I quote –
Well, bless your heart.
We all know what “bless your heart” really means, right? That’s it’s not a well-wisher’s phrase meant to bestow gratitude? And that it passive-aggressively means “F you”?
It’s on, sir. Please see me in my office.
By the time he swung up to my office later (which, not coincidentally, was when he needed more help, insert eyeroll emoji) I was ready to Call. Him. Out. When he approached, I cocked my head to the side and said, “Look – we need to clear the air here. I got your ‘bless your heart’ email – dude – we all know what means. What’s your deal?”
He blinked, and then proceeded to furiously backpedal like a newborn baby giraffe on a unicycle. (It was mildly glorious to watch. LOL) Perhaps in the future he’ll only attempt to insult me where I can’t see or hear him do so. Good enough. I’m not the captain of your project Titanic, and I may be your last lifeboat, so watch me float away while you sink this sucker. Bless YOUR f*cking heart, a$$clown.
While you certainly expect the occasional misunderstanding <cough> with coworkers, it’s odd to me how communication breaks down so often with the people we love and live with. Shouldn’t these be the people who know us best – those who can anticipate intent and interpret nuance and understand what you mean even when you don’t directly say it?
Sometimes, sure. Earlier this week, the hubs and and I were researching natural alternatives to the traditional grass-covered lawn. (Largely because he hates to mow, and also because the grubs ate about a third of my grass, so it’s a great time to plant something different.) I was trying to look at some of the examples, like creeping thyme, clover, and wild violets online, and I couldn’t recall the names of the other plants he mentioned.
Me: Hon? What were those other things called again? Pachyderm something? And butt thistle?
Him: Japanese spurge. I think the Latin name is Pachy-something. And dead nettle.
Him: ….Butt thistle?
“Butt Thistle” is now our future band name, even though the hubs is 100% tone-deaf. But the point here is that he very clearly understood what I meant, even though it’s a bit of a stretch from what I actually said, which was some version of elephants and a painful homeopathic enema.
As you probably guessed, though, communication isn’t always quite that smooth. Just now, as I was writing this, the hubs was nearby working on his flowers (he has a pretty elaborate hobby going, so watering and feeding is a full hour-long process. And that’s just the indoor stuff.) He pulled out this Crown of Thorns, which is currently in bloom:
I commented how much I liked the color – that it was the shade of summer that just pops on a manicure or pedicure, and looks SO GOOD with a tan.
Him: <blink> So…you like it?
So yeah, sometimes communication isn’t as clear as we’ve intended, even when we use extra words to clarify. And other times, we feel we’ve made the message crystal clear, so we stop saying anything at all. It certainly doesn’t help matters when communication shuts down, but on occasion you don’t have any extra energy available to spare on the SAME THING you have said a bazillion times already…and you quit trying.
Case in point: The hubs and his boys order food delivery a lot. 90% of the time, I don’t want to add anything to their order. (Because, you know, I don’t really eat.) And yet…when they’re all putting together an order of Chinese food or Chipotle, and they don’t ask me if I want to participate, I feel very left out. It’s so weird – my inner eating disorder should be glad that I become conveniently inconspicuous when they’re selecting their favorites from the online menu (no pressure to select, and then eat, the foods that will make me hella fat). But I’m not. I feel…well, invisible. Excluded. Like I’m not acknowledged as part of the family.
Yesterday, my younger stepson found a “deal” – 99 cent delivery from Dairy Queen. Yay, low-quality soft-serve and questionable-origin hot dogs for everyone! Both boys and my spouse talked about cheese curds, chicken fingers, and sundaes, adding items and discussing who was getting what.
I sat there on the sofa and didn’t say a word while they confirmed among the three of them that the order was complete.
And not a single person asked me if I wanted anything.
I WAS RIGHT THERE. Literally in front of them, but as relevant as a tossed-aside throw pillow. Not important enough to pick up off the floor and put back on the couch.
Now yes, I do realize that I am kind of being a big baby about this. Since I was, in fact, RIGHT THERE, there is zero reason that I couldn’t have spoken up and said “hey, throw in a Reese’s Blizzard for me.”
But I didn’t. Instead, I communicated with myself:
They didn’t invite you for a reason.
No one thinks you NEED fast food.
If you were REALLY too thin, they’d be pressuring you to order.
So, in other words, they deliberately exclude me from family food orders because they think I’m fat.
Because THAT is how communication tends to work. We color outside the lines with the crayons we’ve had for years, and no matter how much focus is placed on the image we’re supposed to produce, the waxy scribbles smear over the intended picture.
I think back to that couple we passed by the river, who despite approaching communication from different languages, found a way to meet in the middle with something they mutually understood. And I wish there was a way I could borrow their verbal crayons – or tap into that magical Babel fish that helps me say what I mean.
Instead, I continue to keep my head down and focus on the picture I’m trying to draw, letting the lines blur and permitting only my silence to scream that I’m hurting.