On being ... unintended consequences

By Ingrid Sapona

Do you remember the story about Isaac Newton coming up with the idea of gravity as a result of being clunked on the head with an apple? Even though the story’s a bit far-fetched, whenever I think about cause and effect, I think about it and Newton’s ability to see way beyond the immediate links in the cause and effect chain.

We deal with cause and effect on many levels every day: from stunningly simple (and usually quite annoying) realizations like if you put a red shirt in the laundry with white socks you’ll end up with pink socks -- to much subtler realizations, like if your newborn’s crying it could well be because she’s hungry. As with many things, the more examples of cause and effect you’ve seen, the less it seems that you’re even conscious of it. And of course, as soon as something slips from our consciousness, it’s more-or-less an open invitation for fate to step in and refocus our attention -- one way or another.

An example of cause and effect -- actually a connected chain of causes and effects -- occurred at my gym recently that must have had Sir Isaac laughing in his grave. A couple months ago they put down new carpeting in the ladies locker room. They used carpet tiles. Not long after it was laid, some squares began to come unglued. In one particular area it became bad enough that they decided to re-glue some of the tiles.

After applying new glue, they carefully arranged about a dozen 15-lb. dumbbells on a row of three problem tiles. In hopes that no one would remove the weights, they put up a note explaining that the tiles had been re-glued and they asked members not to move the dumbbells. I distinctly remember that when I first saw the dumbbells and read about the re-gluing, I thought the idea of weighing down the tiles was pretty clever.

To my amazement, everyone respected the request on the sign and the dumbbells remained untouched for days. Then, one day I noticed something amazing -- something that seemed to happen overnight: the floor under the three tiles had completely warped. I don’t mean warped as in a bit of unevenness. I mean warped to the point that a five inch high hump had arisen under the carpet tiles. Honestly, you had to see it to believe it.

As soon as I saw it, I understood immediately how it had happened. The dumbbells were all identical: they’re made of an eight-inch long metal rod (weighing about one pound) with seven-pound metal chunks attached at each end. Because the dumbbells were all lined up in the same direction, the effect was to have 90 pounds spread evenly along one edge of the carpet and -- just eight inches across from that line (the length of the metal rod of each dumbbell) -- another 90 pounds was spread along the other edge of the carpet tiles. The extreme weight along the edges forced the flooring underneath to pop up between the two rows.

On seeing the hump, I simply started laughing. After my laughter had subsided to a broad smile, another woman coming into the area noticed the hump and wondered aloud what had happened. I explained that what we were witnessing was the unintended consequence of someone trying to deal with the problem of the carpet tiles not sticking. After listening to my hypothesis she just shrugged and mumbled, “Well I hope they do something about it -- someone could trip on it,” and off she went for her shower. I, on the other hand, remained standing there, quite fascinated and amused by the whole thing.

The area remained like that for a number of days. Then, one day the dumbbells were gone but the four-foot by five-inch ridge in the flooring remained. Over the next few days I can’t tell you how many women I heard mutter, as they carefully stepped around the hump: “Wow -- that’s dangerous -- someone could trip on it… They ought to do something about it.”

Then, one day the often-muttered-about cause and effect happened. Not watching where I was going (I was in a hurry that morning), I stubbed a toe on the hump and went flying. After I collected myself from the floor I headed straight for the manager’s office and suggested (in no uncertain terms) that they at least mark the ridge with something that would catch your eye and make you remember to go around it.

The next day, though I was relieved when I saw bright yellow “slippery when wet”-type signs by the hump to warn others, I couldn’t help feeling that those signs were fate’s way of having the last laugh at me. After all, not only had I very keenly observed the various links in the complicated cause and effect chain -- I had even marveled at the literal emergence of the unintended consequence of the ill-fated re-gluing. And yet, in my haste I let my focus slip and -- low and behold -- next thing I knew I experienced, first hand, the hazards of unintended consequences.

Part of me wants to believe that the whole series of observations I had about the carpet tile fiasco was meant as a lesson in something more meaningful that just: watch where you’re walking. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t try to play Isaac Newton or over analyze it. Maybe the black and blue spot on my knee is just a colourful reminder that an effect is an effect, regardless of the cause. (But then again, where would we be if Sir Isaac just thought the apple incident was God offering him a tasty treat?)

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... (mis)cued

by Ingrid Sapona

I’m on a committee at my sail club that’s met four or five times so far. To date, all our meetings have started at 7 p.m. On the morning of our last meeting one committee member sent an e-mail asking: “Are we on tonight for 7 or 6:30?”

The committee’s secretary promptly e-mailed back: “I have us down for 7:00. I'm not sure I can get there by 6:30 but maybe 6:45 if we want to start earlier.” Other committee members responded that either time was fine. We ended up meeting at 7 p.m, the originally agreed upon time.

That night I happened to get there early, as did the fellow who asked about the meeting time. I was curious about whether he was just confused about what time we had agreed to meet, or whether the e-mail was meant as a hint that he’d like to start early (which is how the secretary seemed to interpret it). As I suspected, he was simply asking the question because he had forgotten to put the time down on his calendar.

That e-mail interplay reminded me of another exchange I was part of years ago at my sail club. The occasion was a Saturday race. All of us had raced together before on this boat, with this skipper. If you’ve spent any time on boats you know that most skippers take to heart the old adage: a place for everything and everything in its place. (Of course, there are two good reasons for this: space is at a premium on a boat, and when you have to act quickly, it’s always nice to find things where you expect them.)

Because Saturday races are long, most people bring a sandwich. When I got on the boat that morning, I asked the skipper where we should put our lunches and she said, “in the cooler”. A few minutes later another crew member came aboard -- a rather taciturn Russian -- and he left his sandwich in a corner in the galley. When the skipper noticed his sandwich she casually said to him, “Would you like to put this in the cooler?” With a bit of a shrug, the Russian said, “no”.

Though not meaning to, his response clearly exasperated the skipper, who sighed loudly in frustration. As soon as I realized my laughter wasn’t helping, I turned to my Russian crewmate and simply said, “I’m going to put your sandwich in the cooler so it’s out of the way, ok?” To which he quickly agreed, causing the skipper to shake her head in utter confusion.

It wasn’t until I explained that a non-native English speaker might not understand how a question might not really be a question did she see how she had contributed to the miscommunication. Interestingly, the skipper was even more baffled when I tried to explain that perhaps though he said no, he didn’t necessarily mean she should not put it in the cooler, he probably just meant there was no need to put it in there. Or, he might even have said no just because he didn’t want to trouble her by taking up space in the cooler!

I know, talk about confusing …

What these two stories have in common, of course, is indirect speech patterns. More precisely, misunderstandings that were based on indirect speech patters. In the first case, the “speaker” (the guy who asked what time the meeting was starting) wasn’t engaging in indirect speech, but the committee secretary thought he was. In the second case the skipper was being indirect, but the listener took the question at face value and answered what he thought was a direct question with a direct answer.

In both cases, I almost instantly realized the nature of the miscommunication. Why? Because indirect speech is a technique I mastered growing up. In our house, for example, if we were at the table and the coffee pot was on the stove, if my mother asked if there was more coffee, that was a cue to go get her some. Or, if on a Sunday morning Dad said, “Do you want to go on a picnic?”, you can bet that in short order one of us girls would be headed into the basement to get the picnic hamper.

Indirect speech works fine in some situations and between some people, but in other cases it can backfire. Though it might be easier if people were more direct, imagine how dull it would be if everyone just spoke in declarative sentences and if every question was just a straight question. I’m not sure that would be a welcome trade-off. I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to give up things like innuendo just for the sake of making sure you avoid the occasional miscue.

Given human nature and the inherent perils of communication, I don’t know if there’s any fool-proof way of determining when it’s safe to use indirect speech and when it’s not. I suppose before you engage in conversation you could ask the other person, “Can you take a hint?” (But really, who’s going to admit that they can’t take a hint?) Besides, if they say yes, maybe it’s because they took your question as a hint. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink…)

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona