Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Man Hears What He Wants to Hear

One of the problems you will have as a writer is that you will offer your story to people who never go anywhere but that they bring their own baggage. We all do this, it's the nature of living in the world that we develop attitudes and opinions, likes and dislikes, and when folks arrive at the tale you have created, they will have those axes with them.

Sometimes they will see stuff between the lines that isn't there. (And sometimes, it will be there, even if you didn't intend it to be.)

There is not much you can do about this, save try to be as clear as possible in your writing. You may be sure that if there is any ambiguity in what you say, at least some readers will choose the path opposite the one you intended. Even if you flatly say something and think there is no room for misinterpretation, trust me, it will sometimes be misinterpreted.

Because sometimes people will see or hear what they think is there and not what really is.

Two stories:

When I first moved to L.A., I got a job working in the Follow-up Department of an aluminum company that bought large quantities from the mills and then sold smaller amounts to the aircraft companies. It was part of my job to answer queries, either by phone, or though the Telex system (aka TWX), which was the old-style version of email before the net. Usually these were simple requests: Where is our order you promised to ship already?

I had to track it down, see if it had shipped or not. If it did, I had to find the carrier and a way bill number, and get it back to the customer. If it hadn't shipped, I had to tell them when it would, and how. So a typical response went like this:

Dear Mr. Dunstan:

Your order for PO XXXXX, Pioneer's part # PA-XXXX, shipped from our Kent, WA facility on 3/2, via Transcon, their bill # XXXX-X. Should arrive approximately 5-7 shipping days, by 3/9.

Or this:

Your order for PO XXXXX, Pioneer's part # PA-XXXX, is on back-order and will ship approximately 4/1, via Yellow Line Freight.

I did a lot of these, thirty, sometimes fifty a day. They were all handwritten on a TWX form and delivered to our Telex Operator. But each one of these had to be initialed by the head of the Follow-Up Department before I put them in the out basket. He would do this without looking at the contents, and I asked him why he bothered, since he didn't read 'em.

Well, because you might write "Go suck a rotten egg," to one of our big clients and they probably wouldn't like it. You'd be fired, of course, but the company would want somebody higher up to blame, and that would be me.

Oh, I said. Got it.

From that point on, until I left Follow-up and moved up to the Order Board, each and every TWX I wrote had, at the end of my message GSARE -- for, of course, Go Suck a Rotten Egg. Well over a thousand such messages.

Nobody ever noticed. At least not enough to ask what it meant. Not my supervisor, none of the clients, who might be forgiven for that because they could think it was some kind of internal code. But the other branches of the company -- we had two, one in Kent, WA, the other in Marietta, GA, knew it wasn't some internal code, and they used to get copies any paperwork we sent that shipped from their locations. And they didn't ask, either.

Oddly enough, at the same time I had that job, a buddy of mine was working for Western Union. Back in the day before the net and web, people would sometimes send telegrams rather than telephone. His job was to answer the phones and take down messages to be sent. He got, he said, between a hundred and two hundred calls a day.

He was supposed to answer the phone: "Western Union. How may I help you?"

After a few days, and feeling like a robot, he stared fiddling with the message.

"Western Onion. How may I help you?"

Nobody caught it.

So he ratcheted it up a notch:

"Eastern Onion. How may I help you?"

People blew right past it: "Yeah, I need to send a telegram to my mother ..."

Finally, he started saying stuff like:

"Easter Onion. How may you help me?"

At which point he said, maybe one out of twenty or thirty callers would say, "Excuse me?"

Whereupon he would say, "Western Union. How may I help you?"

"Oh. Sorry. I thought you said something else."

Those other people? They expected to hear something, and they heard it, even though it wasn't being said.

I remember the first time I called long-distance directory assistant and got a bored operator who droned out "City, please."

What I heard was "City Police." I'm still not sure if that's what she said or not ...

So, how to make it as clear as you can?

1) When possible, use precise, even exact language: "Corvette" is better than"Chevrolet" is better than "car," if what you mean is the big muscle machine for guys looking to bolster their masculinity. And the year and model number, if appropriate. C1? C2 Sting Ray? C3 Stingray?

2) If it is important, repeat it, and three times is the rule. If you have called it a "Corvette" thrice in a story and somebody thinks it's a Thunderbird, then it's their fault and not yours.

3) Realize that no matter what you do, some people are going to miss it, and let that go. Unless you are writing for a journal, the point is communication between the writer and the reader. You can make them work a little, that's okay, but some of what you do is gonna sail right over some of their heads. You won't be their at their elbow to explain what you meant. Best you come as close to saying what you mean as you can. Strive for clarity, but don't expect perfection ...


jks9199 said...

Some years back, while I was in high school, a friend's dog cornered a possum. The possum was then captured and placed in a bucket. (It made sense at the time.)

A few details, worth noting. As anyone who has had the opportunity to examine one up close can verify, a possum's mouth is full of sharp teeth. In fact, I think the possum stood in line twice when it came time to get teeth -- because there are entirely too many of them in critter's mouth. Also, possums are carrion feeders. And they smell like it.

Please recall... this was in high school. Said possum had been captured by a group of high school boys. Who associated (as much as possible) with high school girls. And often found themselves doing things that only make sense in light of that...

Linda decided that the possum needed a bath. We only briefly contemplated doing this, as we again noted that the mouth of the possum was rather over abundantly filled with sharp teeth. And it didn't like getting hit with the water from the hose.

But we did find ourselves making a series of phone calls, with the following script:

"Hello, this is the Society for the Domestication of Wild Animals. Would you like to bathe a possum?"

Said rapidly, and with confidence and energy... People heard "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals" or some such...

We actually got a few offers of donations... Not too many takers for giving that possum a bath, though!

Some guy said...

This reminds me of one time I was answering the phone for the library, and managed to accidentally splice two of my reflex lines together when a female patron called: "Hello. So-and-so Library. May I hold you?"

Some guy