17 June 2010

Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

We are a shorthand society.

When we speak, we tend to use an economy of words. The better we know someone, the fewer words we seem to use. Spouses of fifty years can communicate with gestures, facial expressions, and body language alone. Athletic teams are coached with hand signals and one-word commands. There are a couple of reasons for this phenomenon. As a situation becomes more familiar and routine, we need less detailed information in negotiating it. For example, when your teacher said, "Put your books away," a chorus of groans welled up from the class. Why? Because the formalized act of putting books away indicated that a test was coming. We blow kisses, point at our wrist, etc. for well-known shortcuts in conversation. Also, the human tendency seems to be to expend as little effort as a task reasonably needs.

Texting has taken a firm hold on the popular imagination, curious among a population at large which seldom writes anything. It is probably its brevity which so appeals to modern culture. In its way it is also a logical manifestation of the desire of the young to develop, through language, an identity of their own. Sure, adults text, but anyone over thirty probably does it incorrectly or apologetically. In any case, young or old, it is fraught with potential misunderstanding. Sb may be "stand by," "Sarah Brown" or "so bad;" ta could be a short goodbye or "thanks again" or "try again." Luckily, I suppose, texters feel they know one another well enough, or share enough of the same language patterns so as to be understood. Or perhaps the need to be perfectly understood has diminished. Speed of communication appears to be the goal.

In a business context, I have seen memos on the correct construction of a memo. While this seems a bit paranoid on the surface, it is also a reminder of the importance of clarity in a transaction which can have terrific consequences. When speaking of a contract, finalize has a vastly different meaning than terminate, which can, in some cases be clearer than saying finish. Strategy may be a better term than plan - more proactive and ongoing. Projection might be more accurate than prediction, sounding stronger and more controlled. A memo, by it's nature, is brief. The conveyance of a clear message in an abbreviated format can be critical.

It is often the written form which becomes the binding legal document, from docere; to teach or to prove. The effort of reading thus runs parallel to the development of understanding. When you read a love letter, the words have been chosen to evoke a sentiment and an emotional reaction. Therefore, it is imperative to use the collection of words which best conveys the desired understanding. The wording of a peace treaty must be clear and unequivocal; much depends on the understanding of all the signatories.

How important is the right word in crafting a sentence, both verbal and written? On the Titanic, the sailor on lookout used the words, "Iceberg right ahead," in reporting what he saw. He meant, as his testimony confirmed, that the iceberg was straight ahead. This may have been a common substitution, as his questioner doesn't seem to hesitate over the word. Written transcripts of his testimony then say that the ship started turning to port (left). Did they misunderstand, thinking the iceberg was to the right side, or was this just a 50/50 choice of direction to avoid the collision? Later evidence suggested that if the Titanic hit the iceberg head-on, it may have survived the impact, but the puncturing of its side insured flooding of the watertight compartments. It is much too simplistic to suggest that this tragic event came down to one word, but like the one domino falling, it may have linked the fatal sequence of events.

When Eric Burden sang "Please don't let me be misunderstood," he was singing of love. (I'm a little too young to identify with the Nina Simone version, thank you very much.) He also adds, "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good." Think of it as a make-up letter in musical form. He admits to flaws and asks for love. Now there's an understanding you never want to leave to chance and shorthand, in writing or in speech, even if you've been married a hundred years.

So, learn to write a memo with precision; speak instructions clearly; follow up texts with the sound of your voice, and never, never text a love letter. Understand?

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