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Bewildering Stories

On Ambiguities in Communication

by Don Webb

The world offers authors multiple opportunities for depicting characters in literature — and as many chances for characters to misunderstand each other. Here are some entertaining examples and anecdotes from real life; readers can surely extend them indefinitely!

Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Smile, and people may wonder what’s so funny.

When is a limp not a limp? Have you ever watched a high-school football game? What does an injured player do when he walks off the field? Even if he’s hurt his elbow rather than a foot or leg, he limps. The player might remove his helmet, but that would take a conscious effort, and the sign might be ambiguous. Everybody knows what the player’s limping means; it’s an unconscious and economical distress signal.

Even normal manners of walking send signals we may not be consciously aware of. A European can easily spot an American by his gait. An American swings his arms from his shoulders; a Frenchman, for example, from the elbow. The difference may have to do with the definition of personal space, which is arm’s length in America, forearm’s length in France. Anyone unaware of the cultural difference will sense the other as being either pushy or coldly distant. Neither view is relevant.

Is shaking hands a formal or informal gesture? North Americans shake hands when meeting someone for the first time, and it’s the only time the formal fixed expression “How do you do?” can be used. Or they may shake hands when meeting after a lengthy separation. In France, at least until recently, it was the custom to shake hands whenever you met someone, even after a separation of only a few hours. Shaking hands is by no means universal, but all cultures employ signals of peaceful intent.

The way we look at each other, what does it mean? In some cultures, schoolteachers may become frustrated when trying to talk to a pupil: “Look at me when you speak!” But the pupil may have learned in his own culture — possibly African — that looking directly at an adult when speaking is a sign not of candor but of defiance. Likewise, in North America it’s rude to stare at someone; in Germany, it isn’t.

And what about precedence? Position in a group means different things in different places. In North America, the first in line holds a position of honor. That’s why a gentleman must reach around a lady and strain to push a door open for her even though it would be easier for him to go first and hold the door open.

We must note, however, that stair-climbing is an exception. The gentleman should always be on the downstairs side of the lady even though he must precede her when descending. If she slips and falls, he’ll catch her, or they’ll at least land in a heap at the bottom of the stairs with the lady on top. If he falls, she can observe with equanimity.

In some other countries, especially in the Middle East, the place of honor is at the end of the line. The most important person in a group enters a room last. The advantages are obvious, especially when it comes to avoiding an ambush.

In the song “As Time Goes By,” a sigh may be just a sigh and a kiss, just a kiss. But a smile is never just a smile. In North America, it’s customary to smile when greeting someone at any time. In France, a smile is not necessarily a friendly gesture; it’s normally a response to humor. In Asia, smiling may signify embarrassment or social discomfort, and in any case you may want to cover your mouth; it’s impolite to show your teeth.

Laugh as you will, smile at your own risk.

It’s the same thing, only different.

When I was a student in France, I once frequented a particular café, because I like French coffee.

Be it noted in passing that it was, of course, a café du quartier, ‘in the neighborhood’. One always shops in the quartier unless you absolutely have to go farther afield to find what you want. It’s not just to save time and shoe leather, it’s a matter of territorial tribal bonding; you get to know your neighbors.

Anyway, a weird ritual evolved:

Me: Un café noir, s’il vous plaît. (‘Black coffee, please.’)
Barman, shouting to a co-worker at the coffee machine: Un pression ! (un rather than une; a shortcut for un café en pression)
Me (the next day): Un pression, s’il vous plaît.
Barman: Un nature ! (same reason for un)
Me (the next day): Un nature, s’il vous plaît.
Barman: Un noir !

At that point I figured we’d come full circle. And I’d learned a valuable cultural lesson: one never repeats word for word what someone else has just said; it would sound like mockery. Rather, an interpretation is polite; it means “I’m listening and I’ve understood.”

A counter-example is instructive. In a radio interview many years ago, the dictator of a Southeast Asian country was talking to reporters. At one point the following exchange occurred:

Reporter: “In other words, then—”
Dictator: “There are no other words, only mine.”

That goes far beyond rudeness; it’s a classic case of tyrannical paranoia. The dictator was signaling that he was quite out of touch with reality and terrified that anyone else might not parrot his words, let alone not think the same as he. It’s a wonder he allowed anyone to ask any questions at all.

“I’m listening” may take radically different signals. In a conversation in North American English, speakers are entitled to three sentences, after which another speaker takes the floor. And it’s considered rude to interrupt.

Native speakers of European French may have trouble with that rule. An interruption may be an implied compliment, a way of actively participating in the other speaker’s train of thought. In an English-style conversation, a French speaker may begin to think, “These Anglo-Saxons, never spontaneous, never saying what they think. Maybe they’re plotting something. And what are they smiling at, anyway? Do they think I’m funny?”

Diplomats, beware.

What you say is how you say it.

Apologies to Marshall McLuhan for the subtitle; it’s my interpretation of his oft-quoted phrase “the medium is the message.” But it’s nonetheless true: what one says depends on how it’s said. (Notice that I’ve repeated myself but not in the same words. That’s the rule of repetition in action.)

We interpret others as best we can, often within our own language. A random example comes to mind: formal English seems to have taken a peculiar turn in India, where “shall” may systematically replace “will.”

Not to get all technical on you or anything, but the modal auxiliary “will” means “present circumstances cause the action.” It’s not the same with “shall,” which is a modal imperative meaning “present circumstances require the action.”

The Indian reinterpretation is may be due to the overextension of a rule learned in school about “I shall” and “we shall.” North Americans will be puzzled at first but will eventually understand what is meant, despite the “accent.” Now, what would you have thought if “will” had been “shall” in the previous sentence?

Any message requires both a sender and a receiver, such as an author and a reader — even if the intended reader is the author himself. How might a message go wrong? In recent times, a debate has arisen over the effects of text-messaging on students’ skills in the written language. Is text-messaging harmful? It depends on your point of view.

At Bewildering Stories we’re mindful of a corollary of Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can be misunderstood will be misunderstood.” And that’s why we insist on standard usage and why our guidelines state that we do not accept text-messaging style, such the ampersand where “and” is expected.

But text-messaging is subject to a severe economy of space. The resulting use of abbreviations is a practice that can also be observed in the inscriptions on Roman monuments.

The advantage of the style is that it automatically creates an “in-group” comprising those who understand the symbolism. The disadvantage is that the style sacrifices redundancy, which is a normal feature of any language and one that protects messages from being lost or misinterpreted. And that is what the three little stories in “Taking Notice” are all about.

Once again we come back to the primordial question: Who’s your audience? Who are you talking to, and how might your characters’ verbal and body language be understood or misunderstood?

Copyright © 2012 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories

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