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


On being … open

By Ingrid Sapona

A nearby theatre company does “Secret Theatre” events. The other day they sent out an email announcing the tickets for the first Secret Theatre of the year. To get tickets you phone the box office. I’ve tried in the past, but by the time I got through, the tickets were gone.

The other day I was successful and I nabbed a pair. A day or so later, I got an email from the box office with a bit more information. Basically, they told us where we’d meet, that it was rain or shine, and that it would last about 45 minutes. That was it – no other details.

After ordering the tickets, I phoned a friend to see if she’d like to join me. I told her the little I knew about it, but that it sounded fun. She agreed and so we had a date. Since it was my idea, I offered to drive and said I’d figure out where we might have dinner before the play.

In choosing the restaurant, I wanted to find a place I thought my friend might like. I did my homework – checking out their menus on-line to see both what they offered and the price range.  Because the place I chose didn’t take reservations, just in case we couldn’t get in to my top choice, I had a fallback picked out too,

Driving to the event, we talked about what to expect. Since I knew nothing more than what I had told her earlier, my only comment was that I figured it’d be like a Fringe Festival play, but with higher quality acting.

After dinner, we headed to the Surprise Theatre designated meeting place. At the appointed time, they led us (a crowd of about 60) on a brief walk to where the performance would be. The gentleman who welcomed us told us that during the production we’d have four short walks that the cast would lead us on. He also casually mentioned that he was especially pleased that they managed to stage this particular play on this particular weekend. From that, I think we all guessed the play was going to have a Mother’s Day theme.

Then, without further ado, the play began, right where we were standing. Out marched five actresses all dressed in black, with one of them sporting a distinct baby bump. The first “scene”, if I can call it that, was a monologue by the pregnant-looking one about what the baby feels like inside her. As she went on, I was overcome with contrasting emotions. On the one hand, the speech was very powerful and interesting; on the other hand, I worried about how my friend might take it. Neither of us has kids, so it’s not like we could personally relate to what the actress was saying.

I was very concerned with whether it was making my friend uncomfortable. I kept thinking, “Oh please, don’t let this end in a screaming birth scene”. It didn’t. The monologue gently described a few contractions and then crescendoed with the actress fondling an imaginary baby.

They asked us not to tell people too much about the play itself, as they might replay it at a future Secret Theatre. So, I won’t describe it more than to say it focused on the trials and tribulations of being a mother.

Since seeing it, I’ve been unable to get the play out of my head. It was a rare combination of sweet, yet poignant. It was well written and cleverly staged. I’ve also been thinking about how long it’s been since I saw or read something that surprised and delighted me. For sure, part of the reason I enjoyed it so much had to do with the quality of the writing and acting. But it wasn’t just that. It also had to do with the fact that I went in with virtually no expectations and I was open to the experience.

If you think about it, it’s pretty rare that we go into a show or even a restaurant without knowing something about it. With movies, we see trailers and read reviews. With restaurants, we can look at their menus on-line and read diners’ comments. With plays, we usually at least know who the playwright is, if not something about the play itself. Heck, even in Fringe Festival productions there’s a line or two description (often quite misleading, mind you) meant to entice people to attend. What I think we fail to think about is the down side of having all this information: that it often builds expectations – some reasonable, some unrealistic.

The Secret Theatre outing has reminded me of the unexpected joy that can come by experiencing something with an open mind, free of expectation and pre-conceived ideas. What about you? Do you find yourself truly open to things? I hope so. If not, maybe you should give it a try… 

©2018 Ingrid Sapona