9/15/2018

On being … able to


I’m sure you heard about Cosby show actor (Geoffrey Owens) who was working at a grocery store when a shopper recognized him a couple weeks ago and snapped a picture of him. But that wasn’t all she did. She then shared the photos on the Internet. It’s not clear to me whether she posted them on regular social media (like Facebook), or whether she sent them to so-called celebrity websites, though she says no one paid her for the photos. In any event, shortly after she posted the pictures, a UK tabloid ran them and interviewed her about them.

To start, the idea of intentionally taking a stranger’s photo is really odd to me. It’s one thing if you’re taking a photo of something and there are anonymous people in the picture. That’s innocent enough – kind of like seeing someone walking on the street in a Google Earth photo. But to surreptitiously take a photo and then post it, you have to wonder why?

I realize that, thanks to cell phone cameras, taking pictures is a regular thing. And I know that people post all sorts of things on-line. Indeed, that was basically the rationale given by Karma Lawrence, the woman who took the photos and posted them. She said, “I figure everybody does it.” My immediate reaction was that her mother probably never chided her about not jumping off a bridge just because all your friends are doing it.

Anyway, after the initial “shock” that a once well-known actor was working in a grocery store got out there, the focus of the story shifted to Karma and her intent in posting the photos. Lots of people accused her of “job shaming”, which she denied.

By the end of the week, the tawdry tale ended up as a good news story, of sorts. Owens took the high road throughout the kerfuffle. He politely explained (not that it was anyone’s business) that he took the job because he needed to pay bills and support his family and because it offered the flexibility for him to go to auditions and the like. He also stressed the dignity of honest work, regardless of the pay or the status. A few days later, word came that he accepted a role on Tyler Perry’s TV show. So, all’s well that ends well, at least for Mr. Owens, so it seems.

The most ironic twist of the whole tale doesn’t relate to Mr. Owens. It relates to, Ms. Lawrence – Karma – and the fact that she seemed surprised by the backlash and nasty comments directed at her. After the incident, she was quoted as complaining, “So much hate. So much nastiness. Oh, it’s been terrible”. (I guess her mother never told her that what goes around comes around… Perhaps she figured naming her Karma would be enough of a hint.)

The reason I wanted to write about this story is because of what I think it says about normalized behaviour. Actually, I was going to say “acceptable behaviour”, but that’s what I think the problem is. I’m concerned about behaviour that’s questionable – or wrong – but that people feel comfortable doing because it’s somehow become acceptable.

I jokingly commented that it seemed Karma’s mother never warned her about not following her friends off a bridge, but that really speaks to simply avoiding the herd mentality. Though that’s clearly at play, what concerns me more is that there’s no shame in shaming people.

More and more these days, people’s behaviour is governed simply by what they are able to do (like taking a photo and posting it). It seems people don’t stop and ask themselves whether what they’re about to do is right or wrong, or what the repercussions might be – to others or to themselves even. (Hence the surprise Karma Lawrence had about, well, the law of Karma.) 

And, with the president of the Unites States exhibiting no impulse control and relentlessly engaging in bullying, shaming, defaming, and mocking people, countries, and institutions, it seems more and more people feel empowered to follow suit. Indeed, I think that’s the legacy from the Trump years that will do the most damage.

Maybe all those folks who support Trump, or who dare not contradict him, figure that eventually the law of Karma will catch up to him too. I imagine it will, but between now and when that happens, I wish people would remember that just because you can say or do something, it doesn’t mean you should.

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona

8/30/2018

On being ... private


By Ingrid Sapona

The news of Aretha Franklin’s death this week was sad and interesting to me. When a friend asked if I was a fan, I said yes. I quickly prefaced my answer, however, with the admission that I don’t have any of her albums (or CDs, if we’re being specific). When it comes to musicians, I think that whether you have any of their albums is a sort of litmus test of fandom. But, I also added that one of the most memorable concert-going events I had was when friends and I waited two+ hours to hear her when she played a free concert here in Toronto in 2011. 

Of course, her passing was newsworthy and every news organization published or aired obits about her. I loved seeing the pictures of her through the years and the clips of her belting out various hits. Though I’d never really thought about it, when that friend asked, “But what was with the minks?” I smiled and said I thought it was kind of her signature. Actually, thanks to the endless playing of the clip of her singing Natural Woman when the Kennedy Center Honored writer Carol King, I realized it was really her way of letting the furs fall off her shoulder that was her signature.

Like most fans, I knew a bit about her background. I knew she was the daughter of a well-known preacher and that she grew up in Detroit, which she also called home for the second half of her life. I also knew that because of her father’s fame, she met many African Americans who were prominent in politics and in the music industry. I also knew that she toured via bus because she didn’t like flying. I don’t follow the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions, but I assumed she was in there. But, until her death, I didn’t realize she was the first woman inductee. As is often the case when someone dies, through eulogies and other tributes, you learn things about them that you never knew.

In the case of Aretha, on her death, I was surprised to learn that she had four sons. But that surprising revelation was nothing compared to how blown away I was to learn that she had her first child at 12 years, and two by the time she was 14. I can’t even imagine that…

After hearing that, I realized how little I knew about her life beyond her hits. So, I watched various shows about her with renewed interest. One that I found particularly noteworthy had a video snippet of Barbara Walters asking her what the hardest time of her life was. Good question, I thought. Well, Ms. Franklin clearly didn’t appreciate the question. Stone faced, her response was something like, “I think we all know the answer to that, and so it’s not something we need to talk about…” They didn’t show any more of that interview, but I’m guessing Ms. Walters took that as her cue to move on.

Though I’d have loved to have heard Aretha talk about her personal life, I admired her for drawing a line between her private life and her public life. In this era where oversharing seems the norm, it’s nice to be reminded that true R-E-S-P-E-C-T is based on talent and achievement, not simply notoriety.

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona

8/15/2018

On being … an ambassador


By Ingrid Sapona

Last week a friend emailed me a link to a story from the Buffalo News. From my quick peak at it, I guessed the link was to a travel piece about Buffalo. There had been a travel article on Buffalo in the Toronto Star that week, so I figured some syndicated story was making the rounds. Good for Buffalo, I thought.

Because I was in a hurry when the email came in, I didn’t read the story. But, I didn’t delete it either. Later, when I came across the email again, I clicked on the link and read the story. Turns out, the Buffalo News article wasn’t a travel piece at all. It was a feature about why the Times of London’s newly appointed assistant travel editor chose Buffalo as her first place to write about.

Yes, there was something odd about that angle, I thought. You mean, even the Buffalo News couldn’t imagine that a London newspaper would do a travel piece on Buffalo? Well, it was the most delightful story. Indeed, after reading the Buffalo News piece, I went on-line to find the actual Sunday Times travel article about Buffalo and it was good – but not nearly as interesting as the story behind the travel story.

Apparently, in 2010, Julia Buckley, the Sunday Times writer/editor, lived in Las Vegas. During her year-and-a-half there, JetBlue was running a deal where you could fly to any of the airline’s destinations. Curious about Buffalo wings and knowing that Buffalo was the stepping off point to visit Niagara Falls, Buckley thought it would be fun to fly to Buffalo.

On her first flight to Buffalo, Buckley ended up chatting with a flight attendant who was from the Buffalo area. The two hit it off so well, the flight attendant invited Buckley to stay at her home. They have remained friends and, since then, Buckley has made other Buffalo friends. So, when asked where she wanted to write about, she chose Buffalo because what really stood out to her during past visits was the friendly, genuine nature of the people.

As it happens, a couple weeks ago I was in Western New York for the wedding of the daughter of friends from Buffalo. It was a surprisingly international affair. I knew there’d be some folks from the UK because the groom’s a Brit. But there were also folks from further afield, including people my friends got to know through AFS, an international youth exchange program.

In high school, my friend (the bride’s father) had done a summer abroad through AFS. It made a real impression on him and so, when his kids started high school, they got involved with AFS as a host family. As well, their daughter (the bride) went overseas as an AFS student – I’m sure that experience had something to do with the fact that since graduating from university she’s lived abroad.

I always admired how generous my friends were with their AFS kids. In addition to providing food and shelter to the students for the entire academic year, my friends went out of their way to make sure the kids had an unforgettable experience. Every year my friends would even bring their AFS son or daughter here to Toronto to visit, making sure to take them to a restaurant that serves food from their home country. My friends ended up becoming quite close to some of the families of their AFS kids, and my friends have visited many of them overseas.

Because AFS is primarily for high schoolers, since my friends’ kids are all grown, I figured they were no longer involved with AFS. But, last week my friend mentioned they had just run the orientation program for the new crop of AFS students who’ll be calling Buffalo home for the next 9 months. When I expressed my surprise that they’re still involved with AFS, my friend had a very thoughtful explanation. “As we tell the kids during orientation, it’s all about reaching out and making change, one person at a time. I really believe that,” he said.

These anecdotes share more than just a Buffalo connection, I think. We’ve all had an experience where we’ve “clicked” with a stranger – as that flight attendant no doubt did with the travel writer. But that flight attendant took a leap of faith and went further than most of us would. She opened her heart – and her home – to a virtual stranger. In doing so, she made an indelible impression – one that ended up reflecting well on all of Buffalo. Similarly, the graciousness my friends have extended to the exchange students has helped change the way they – and my friends’ family and friends – relate to others in the world.

I think the main thing these stories have in common is that they both are about the influence each of us can have on how others see and experience things. They helped me realize that in every interaction we have with strangers, there’s an opportunity to be an ambassador – to show – and share with – others the things we value in our lives.

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona

7/30/2018

On being … chef-y


By Ingrid Sapona

As I was sitting down to write today’s column, it dawned on me that readers may end up thinking I’m a chef wanna-be. My immediate reaction to that is a simple No. But then I realized perhaps I should reflect on that a bit, as maybe there’s something to it. So let me get back to you on that later…

I don’t know about you, but my friends and I seem to share more meals over the summer. There’s something about sunshine and all the fresh fruit and vegetables that inspires me to invite friends over and to trying new recipes. And, this summer I’ve been working on upping my game by trying to be more “chef-y”. Ok – that’s a term I’ve coined – but I’ll explain what I mean.

Obviously, chefs have specialized training and know a whole range of things about food. They also know where to find all sorts of exotic ingredients. For example, not too long ago I had a pasta dish that had little teeny tear-drop shaped peppers that I had never seen before. Turns out they were Sweety Drops from Peru.

But, I’ve observed a handful of things chefs do that I think end up making a big difference and I’ve been focusing my energy on these. The first has to do with planning the meal. I used to decide what I wanted to serve and I’d go in search of the necessary ingredients. The past few years I’ve taken a more chef-like approach. Now I narrow it down to a few different recipes and I don’t make the decision until I’m at the market. Then I choose whatever seems the freshest and best value. It seems a no-brainer, I know – but it does require a level of flexibility.

I’ve noticed that chefs also pay a lot of attention to texture in dishes. For example, a sprinkling of pine nuts on a plate of pasta or a handful of shredded cabbage tucked inside a pulled pork sandwich is probably more about adding crunch than about adding flavour.

Colour is also something I’m sure chefs consider and it’s something I’m paying more attention to too. While you won’t catch me adding squid ink to make my risotto a dramatic black, I do look for ways of adding colour. For example, I may add sliced red pepper on top of a green bean salad, or a spear of roasted carrot alongside a scoop of rice. I also try to make sure there’s colour contrast between the main and sides.

Another chef-y thing is how they combine interesting, unexpected flavours. Pickled veggies seem to be a favourite way of adding a bit of tang, while chutneys and compotes are often used to add some heat. While I enjoy some chutneys, I’m not keen enough on them to bother making them. But, I’ve been playing around with quick pickling things ever since I read somewhere that it’s a great way of using up leftover veggies. My current favourite is adding quick pickled corn to arugula salad – it adds colour, zest, and interest. Very chef-y, don’t you think?


Mind you, some combinations chefs come up with seem to work better on paper than in reality. The other day, I ordered a burger because I was intrigued by one item in the description: tomato jam. I’d never heard of that and so I was curious to see whether it was just some fancy catsup. Turns out it was truly a jam – very sweet. I’m not a fan of mixing sweet and savoury, so it kinda ruined the burger for me. So, it’s not something I’m going to try to imitate, but I don’t mind saying it’s nice to know that not every combo a chef comes up with is necessarily a winner either!

And of course, there’s plating the food, which chefs have raised to an art form. Whether it’s a thin streak of pesto along the edge of the salad plate, or a carefully sculpted pyramid of saffron rice next to a flakey piece of fish – chefs clearly have an artistic vision for each dish. And, when they plate something, they always manage to add a few little grace notes – perhaps a couple wafer thin radishes or a curly garlic scape for good measure.

Of course, because a restaurant menu features many different dishes, a chef has all sorts of interesting ingredients on hand that can be used to add pizazz. It’s a bit more of a challenge to have a variety of little things to add to make a plate look interesting when you live alone. But, if you were to peak inside my refrigerator this summer, you’d see that I’ve been making quite an effort in this regard.

So, I’ve been having fun playing around with all these things – from planning the menu, to adding texture, to trying unusual combinations and being more creative in how I plate things. But, does all this mean that somewhere deep down inside I wish I’d have become a chef? I honestly think the answer is no. I love learning about cooking and I enjoy trying to make different things. But, I wouldn’t want it as a career because I’d hate for it to start to feel like a job. Instead, I’m happy just trying to be more chef-y.

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona



7/15/2018

On being … in the dark


By Ingrid Sapona

As the story of the Thai soccer team in the cave was unfolding, I chose not to read articles about it. Part of the reason I avoided the details was that I couldn’t take the whole roller-coaster of emotions. The headlines alone took me – and the rest of the world – from fear, to disbelief, to worry, to sadness, then doubt, and ultimately – thankfully – to relief.

Whenever I did reflect on the story, my thoughts were very much about what the boys’ parents must be going through. As the days elapsed before the divers found them, I wondered how the families could have maintained hope in what seemed a hopeless situation. Then, I imagine the news that they’d been found must have seemed like a miracle. But, before the families could relax in the knowledge that their prayers had been answered, there came news of the rising water, the depleting oxygen level, and the coming worse weather.

As the news emerged about how treacherous the route into the cave was, I was struck by the bravery and selflessness of those involved in the rescue effort. And, on news of the death of the diver, my thoughts shifted to his family and how devastated they must feel.

I also began thinking more about the boys’ feelings. I wondered whether they knew that someone died trying to help them. Frankly, I hoped that the boys weren’t told at the time because the news made clear the difficulty of the situation and the danger. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help think that if they got out, survivor guilt may haunt them for the rest of their lives.

The story also made me think about how quickly an innocent decision can turn into a nightmare. Indeed, it brought to mind a cave adventure friends and I set out on years ago. We were staying at a lodge along a river in southern Belize. It had rained quite heavily the first couple days we were. As parts of the path between our huts submerged, we were reminded that it was hurricane season. Even so, we were surprised at how quickly the river rose around us. But, there was nothing we could do, and the locals seemed unfazed.

One of the excursions we had been interested in going on was cave swimming. I had a bit of trepidation about it, as I worried about bats. I think my friends had some fear too about possible claustrophobia. But, we all decided to conquer our fears and we signed up for it.

To get to the cave we took a boat and then had a slippery, miserable half-mile-or-so walk. When we got near the cave, we were told to wait while our guides went ahead to check the cave opening. When they returned they said the water was too high to go in.

On our way back to the lodge, the guides told us this was the first time they had ever decided against going in. They said we could try again in a few days, but we decided not to. Now, when I think about it, I realize how lucky we were to have experienced guides. It never occurred to me that if we had gotten in, the water could continue to rise. Clearly that young Thai coach and those boys never thought about that possibility either.

After the rescue of the soccer team, I went back and read some of the news stories I had purposely avoided. I was struck by how sweet the notes were that the boys wrote their families. They seemed to go out of their way to reassure everyone that they were alright. I couldn’t help wonder whether notes written by a bunch of North American teens trapped for so long without the basic necessities (not to mention connectivity) would be so pleasant.

One detail in particular got me thinking about how the boys coped during the 10 days before they were found. Apparently the coach, a former Buddhist monk, had taught them how to meditate. That struck me as a truly inspired idea, and – again – one I think few of us from North America would even think of.

The whole story has caused me to reflect on how I would have managed in the face of such a turn of events. How would I cope with the cold, the hunger, and not knowing whether anyone was looking for me? Would I manage to stay calm? Would I manage to remain hopeful? Or would the darkness get to me? I don’t know for sure, but I have my doubts…  

What about you?

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona

6/30/2018

On being … a statement


By Ingrid Sapona

I was driving home when I first heard about Melania Trump’s visit to Texas to tour a shelter housing children the U.S. government has separated from their parents at the border. I’ll admit, my first thought was that sending the First Lady to see the children was a clever PR move. I thought that until I heard about the jacket she wore as she left the White House.

Though I figured there must have been some truth to the story, a number of things about it seemed unlikely. The first was that Melania would wear a $39 jacket from Zara, a Spanish retailer known for its low-cost imitations of others’ designs. I just can’t picture her shopping at Zara. I also wondered how anyone would immediately recognize it was a Zara jacket. (Of course, just because I don’t pay attention to fashion doesn’t mean others don’t.)

The other part of the story that seemed truly unreal was that there was writing on the jacket that read: “I really don’t’ care, do you?” I imagined the only reason we knew that was because some paparazzi with a super zoom lens must have noticed writing on the jacket. But surely they misread it, I thought. Later, when I saw the pictures of the large white lettering on the back, it was clear that no zoom lens was required – all but the visually impaired could read it. 

In the 24 hours that followed, there was a lot said about Melania’s jacket choice. Her communications director insisted it’s just a jacket and there was no hidden message. But even her husband took issue with that explanation, tweeting that the message on the jacket was an expression of Melania’s views about the “Fake News”.

Where do you stand on the matter? Do you think it was just an innocent clothing choice? Something grabbed in haste as she was heading out the door? I’m in the camp that thinks the jacket was a statement. I just don’t see how it couldn’t be. First off, as others have noted, as a former fashion model she must have a heightened sense about what clothes represent. Furthermore, even if she didn’t realize when she moved into the White House that her clothing choices were newsworthy, by now she must. The buzz about her high heels as she boarded Air Force One en route to Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria surely was a teachable moment for her.

As for what statement she was making, as a plain language specialist, given the clarity of the words and the simplicity of the sentence structure, I’d say the message is pretty clear. Of course, you can argue that precisely what she doesn’t care about isn’t clear. Those who believe actions speak louder than words say the message she was sending by heading to Texas was of compassion – regardless of the words on the jacket. After all, she was going to visit innocent children – victims of the cruelty inflicted by her husband and his administration – clearly, she went because she cares about them. Interestingly, those who argue her actions speak louder than words ignore the fact that her wearing a coat with that commentary emblazoned across the back was an action too.  So, which of her actions speak louder, err, clearer?

Another way to try to understand someone’s meaning is to consider their intent. Of course, we don’t know what Melania’s intent was when she wore that jacket. But, if you want someone to know your intent, it’s up to you to express it clearly. And, if you feel your intent’s been misconstrued, it’s within your power to clarify what you meant. Keeping silent when controversy is swirling around about something you said – or did – is a statement too.

I can certainly imagine mindlessly pulling a jacket from a full closet as I head out on an errand. (Can you say autopilot?) But I can’t see myself buying something with that message on the back and not thinking about what others might think if they read it. And, I’d certainly think about it if I was wearing it when I was going out on business.

I think there’s a lesson in this for all of us: everything we say and do is a statement about who we are and our beliefs. Indeed, it seems it’s a lesson Sarah Sanders might have picked up on this week if she hadn’t been busy feeling virtuous about how politely she exited a restaurant when the owner asked her to leave. Sanders’ subsequent tweet about the restaurant owner’s actions saying more about the owner than about Sanders makes it clear that Sarah doesn’t get it. She doesn’t see how her standing up and lying for Trump speaks volumes about her own values and standards.

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona

6/15/2018

On being ... admirable


By Ingrid Sapona

Finding a title for today’s column was hard – not because I couldn’t think of one, but because there were too many to choose from. I’ll give you a few examples of those I vetoed in a minute, but before I do, let me explain what’s been weighing on my mind.

What’s set my mind awhirl this week is Trump’s – and his advisor’s – comments about my Prime Minister (Justin, as Trump likes to refer to him) in the aftermath of the G7 meeting. I know the story got some play in the U.S., but I also know it was swiftly overshadowed by Nobel Prize (self-)Nominee Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un.

As you might imagine, north of the border we took note of Trump’s post G7 tweet that Trudeau is “dishonest and weak”, not to mention the comments his staff made on the Sunday political talk shows. The best that can be said about Peter Navarro’s comments that Trudeau’s behaviour was “amateurish”, “rogue”, and “sophomoric” is that Navarro clearly has a bigger vocabulary than Trump.

But, Navarro’s comment about a special place in hell seemed truly over the top to us. (Actually, always a sucker for a pun, I smiled when I read one commentator’s reference to Navarro’s special place in hell comment as “especially incendiary”.) And yes, Navarro’s subsequent admission that the language he used was “inappropriate”, made the news here too. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that by our standards, that didn’t cut it as an apology. But never mind…

And yes, we also heard Larry Kudlow’s comment about Trump not wanting to appear weak to Kim. Though I’ll get to why we found that explanation odd – it did help us understand that Trump’s comments were not really for our benefit. Instead, they were apparently meant to paint a picture for Kim, who was next up in Trump’s speed dating overseas adventure. But, we can’t quite understand why Kudlow and Co. don’t understand that Kim could, in fact, see the President’s bullying of his closest allies as reason to not believe anything he hears from Trump at the negotiating table. But never mind…

Anyway – with this background, I offer up some of the other titles I considered for today’s column, along with the reason I decided against each.

On being … baffling – too obvious.
On being … insulted – too obvious.
On being … an unprecedented attack – too obvious.
On being … an abrupt shift – too obvious.
On being … bizarre – well, this is true of pretty much everything Trump says and does.

As it happens, these are all descriptions reporters and commentators here used to describe Trump’s sudden decision to end the budding bromance he and Justin had going.

While all these terms certainly reflect the astonishment we feel, they don’t really capture the genuine concern we feel with Trump at the helm of the neighbor we’ve shared the longest undefended border with. Bluster and antics aside, how would you interpret the President’s statement that Trudeau’s comment after the G7 meeting is going to cost the people of Canada a lot of money. The common interpretation of that was that Trump is intent on punishing the people of Canada. That kind of confirms our view that the national security justification for imposing tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum is a ruse.

Regardless of the intended audience for the insults and exaggerations, given what’s at stake – in terms of both trade and having an on-going working relationship between the two countries – clearly you’d expect the Canadian government to react. And it’s precisely the calm, dignified reaction of Trudeau and his cabinet that has caused me to write today’s column.

I thought it was brilliant that Trudeau, rather than dignify Trump’s bullying and personal attack, had Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland respond. And I loved that her comment was that “Canada does notbelieve that ad hominem attacks are a particularly appropriate or useful way toconduct our relations with other countries.” A couple days later Freeland, who has been Canada’s main representative in the NAFTA renegotiations, also reminded people that, “From day one, we have saidthat we expected moments of drama and that we would … keep calm and carry onthroughout those moments of drama.

And it wasn’t just Trudeau’s governing party that took the high road. Andrew Scheer, leader of the opposition party, was similarly professional. Scheer said, “Divisive rhetoric and personal attacks from theU.S. administration are clearly unhelpful.

I find it most admirable that our Prime Minister is able to eloquently articulate our values (that Canadians are polite and reasonable but that we will also not be pushed around) AND that our representatives live those values.

©2018 Ingrid Sapona

5/30/2018

On being ... a wonder


By Ingrid Sapona

For twenty years, I’ve made a living as a plain language communications specialist. My goal is to make information as clear and understandable as possible to all audiences. As a result, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways that people might misunderstand what’s written. Clients are often surprised at how straightforward word choice can create ambiguity. (A simple example I always give people is the word sheet. Not a particularly technical word, and yet, it can mean very different things. If you’re talking about sailing, a sheet is a rope. But what if you’re making a bed? Or what if you’re using a printer? Or what if you’re replacing a window? In each of those situations, sheet has a different meaning.)

Obviously, underpinning my work is a belief that with effort, you can make information understandable. Then, along came the news story recently about the internet meme[1] that got lots of buzz: the recorded pronunciation that some people heard as “yanni” and some heard as “laurel”.

I first heard about it in a morning news story on t.v. As part of that story, they repeatedly played the audio clip and I unequivocally heard “yanni”, “yanni”, “yanni”, though the word “laurel” was up on the screen. Given the mismatch between what I heard and what I saw, I was confused. I figured I must have only caught the tail end of the story.

The next time I heard it I was standing next to someone who was also hearing the audio clip. This time I heard “laurel”. I couldn’t believe it was the same clip. But, the person standing next to me said they heard “yanni”. While part of me found the whole thing unbelievable – given that I had heard it as “yanni” at one point and “laurel” at another point, I couldn’t deny that you could hear the same word very differently. Various on-line polls of what people heard show that the split was pretty much dead even (50/50).[2]

Shortly after the meme went viral, explanations about it came out. The difference apparently has to do with the frequencies we hear.[3] As for how I could have heard yanni one time and laurel another, it has to do with distortions in the frequency that could happen as a result of the audio clip being recorded and/or played via different devices. While I found the explanations interesting and believable, the fact that a word can be heard – and therefore interpreted – so differently is quite disconcerting to a “communications specialist”. Does the yanni/laurel discrepancy mean that no matter how much effort and care you put into making things clear, there is, at best, a 50/50 chance people will understand what you intend them to? Who knows…

A few days after the yanni/laurel story faded, I was out with my mother. Even with her hearing aids, her hearing isn’t terrific and she often complains that I speak too fast. As we were getting ready to leave someone’s office, she asked which direction to head. I told her to turn right. She headed out a bit ahead of me and when she got into the hall, she promptly turned left. When I caught up to her, as I pointed in the other direction, I reiterated that we need to head off to the right.

As she turned around, she adamantly said, “You said turn left”. I’m quite sure I had said, “go right” but, as I was about to object (ok, argue), I thought of the yanni/laurel phenomenon. Maybe she heard left, even though I said right. Who knows…

As you can see, the whole yanni/laurel thing has really given me pause. On the one hand, I’m going to try to keep it in mind as an explanation for when friends and family seem to have not “heard” what I said. On the other hand, it sure makes it seem that it’s a wonder that human beings are able to communicate with each other at all…

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona


[1] For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term “meme” (as I was until pretty recently), here’s one of the ways Merriam-Webster.com defines it:  an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media
[2] The Atlantic reported that one poll on Instagram showed 51% heard yanni and another Instagram poll showed 53% heard laurel, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/05/dont-rest-on-your-laurels/560483/
[3] Here’s a video that provides the best explanation I’ve found: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3km896XZ-J0