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


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