Sunday, 3 May 2009

Being misunderstood

You know, for someone who prides herself on her communication skills, this sure happens an awful lot. BOTH misunderstanding AND being misunderstood.

Take for instance this (true) episode that happened to me just down the road at the (now defunct) café. I ordered a 'petite cream' but was given a 'petit noir', or espresso. So I asked the owner, in my most polite French, as he passed by the table, "Seriez-vous capable de me mettre un peu de lait, s'il vous plaît?" (Would you please bring me a bit of milk?) He turned, looked at me, seemed to focus on my face, then replied in a slurring English Southend accent, "I'm glad you like the meal," then turned and stumbled off, obviously three sheets to any prevailing wind.

Now, that may not be quite so funny unless you speak French or can imagine me sitting there, slack-jawed, trying to figure out how requesting milk could be so misconstrued into a compliment over his cooking. (A dry, oven-baked chicken breast, covered with Bisto gravy... no, seriously. I think not. Oh wait, that might have been the other time I ate there and had the recycled shoe leather masquerading as meat-on-a-wooden-stick. Yeah, I know, I'm cruel but I'm fair.)

Then of course that leads me to thinking about the differences between American English and English English. Oh boy. Let me tell you another true story that happened to me when I was very young and first in London.

First we have to imagine London in the early 1980's. Got that? Need help? OK, Let's focus on when this occurred: 1982. Chuck and Di had gotten married the year before and she was just about to pop out the heir, little Willy. The country was just getting over the race riots in Brixton, Toxteth and other parts of the UK. Pope John Paul II visits UK, first Papal visit since 1531 (so I guess the RCs are 'over' that whole Henry VIII thing, finally.) Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats was playing to sold-out audiences at the New London Theatre. The Social Democratic Party SDP had been launched and was seen as some new hope for the country (bless.) Argentina invades the Falkland Islands and we have that whole kerfuffle marked by Private Eye magazine publishing that marvellous edition where you could play along with Battleship and Elaine Page's performance of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" was rudely blocked out by the Beeb. (Elaine went on to sing "Memory" as Grizabella in Cats.) Oh, and the Thames Barrier was supposedly completed but we were still having to close the submarine door on the lower bar during flood waters, or, twice a day.

Are you there yet? Oh, wait, here's something to help you get in the mood... if for nothing else, Mick Jagger in a shell suit.

So, imagine me, all of 23, week after New Years, the sales in London are in full swing and I got my pay packet in my pocket. 'Come On Eileen' or possibly 'Don't You Want Me, Baby' is playing on the radio. Anyway, I decided to snazz up an outfit I had in mind: White cotton, frothy, beaded 'Diana' blouse tucked into my high-waisted black tuxedo pants, strappy high-heeled black leather court shoes, big hair (of course) and the requisite yards of (fake) gold chains around the neck and waist. Only problem, the trousers kept slipping down, (I was a LOT thinner back then) I needed a way to keep them up, ah-ha! Bingo! Men's department at Marks and Spencers for those... uh, thingys.

Nice, fresh-faced clerk of about 19: "Good afternoon, Miss, may I be of service?"
Kitty to nice, fresh-faced clerk of about 19: "Oh! Hello! I'm looking for some leather suspenders."
Nice, fresh-faced seriously blushing clerk of about 19: "Oh! Erm, (gulp) I think you might be better served in the Lingerie Department, Miss. Right this way, please."
Kitty: Shrugs and follows, What do I know about UK Retail Merchandising?
Sweet Old Dear in Lingerie: "Yes, Malcolm? Does this lady need help?"
Nice, fresh-faced and ready to explode clerk of about 19: "I believe you might be better suited to supply what.. *ahem*"
Kitty (butting in, politely): "Good afternoon, I'm looking for leather suspenders, black leather, if possible. I'll go with white, but I'd prefer black."
Sweet Old Dear: (As she peers over her half-moon spectacles at me) "Oh my, lovey, we don't carry that sort of thing at Marks and Sparks. You'd have to go into Soho for that sort."
Kitty (completely confused) "But... you show them on your mannequins over in the bridal area."
SOD and FFC both whip their head around at the plaster men modelling wedding attire and then back to me, now they looked completely puzzled.
Kitty: "Black leather suspenders.. to attach to the inside buttons of my trousers (I already ran into the 'pants' one earlier, so knew better) to hold them up? They go over my shoulders and attach?" I was now using a complicated series of hand gestures that might have been thought of as cursing in either sign language or Braille.
Finally, the penny dropped for both for them.
"You mean BRACES!" they both cried in unison.
I stared at them and stuttered, "Braces? They go on your teeth..?"

SOD now went and fetched a pair of suspenders for me to see...
"I see, that's what suspenders are known as in England? You must have thought... black leather and... gosh.... huh."
Uh, well.. no.
"Frightfully sorry," I stammered to the clerk, now MY turn to blush, madly.

I did manage to purchase that for which I went searching. And to his credit, nice, fresh-faced clerk waited to burst out laughing until AFTER I had paid and left the Mens Accessories area.

Now as to being constantly misunderstood, I'd like to point out I don't (usually) fault the people who misunderstand me. After all, we all come from widely diverse backgrounds and home environments. Everyone of us have our own special challenges in our day-today lives. So we bring these experiences (and oft-times "baggage") with us when we 'parley', yes? So, from time to time, especially when cultures mingle, we are bound to end up with confusion. As long as we can get to the deeper meaning, and what's behind the confusion, then we'll be all right in the end. All's Well that End's Well, eh? But it still, admittedly, bothers me. Especially when it causes grief or pain to those I hold most dear.

I guess I'll just have to think more before I speak, or type. And try a lot harder.