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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Happy and Appreciated: It Starts with You. Part 4b

By Rattus Scribus© 16 Nov 2009
Newcomers may read the previous parts of this series by clicking the links in the blog archive.

Rule 4b: Don't Get Lost in Translation: Mishearing.

When Anita and I moved from California to Massachusetts to pursue graduate work, we experienced a mild culture shock. As diverse as southern California is, having been raised there since about the age of six, it was not until we moved to Massachusetts that I became truly conscious of the cultural "Pluribus" in our national "Unum."

One micro-shock was trying to understand the New England accent and its variants. For example, -a words are pronounced with an -er sound; and -er and -ar words are pronounced with an -ah sound. My wife's name is Anita, but it was pronounced "Aniter." Car is cah, yard is yahd, lobster is lobstah, and so on. "Ha-ha. Cute," I said to Anita when we first heard such words pronounced. And indeed it was cute, and at times downright hilarious.

One time we were at a Christian fellowship in the home of some lovely friends in the town of "Manches-tah by the Sea." There was a time of Bible study led by a fellow seminarian from South Carolina who had one of thickest southern drawls I'd ever heard. He was a real southern Christian gentleman and a dear friend. (And his wife was the first truly southern belle I had ever met.) But I mean when he spoke, his whole mouth, indeed part of his face, shifted downward and to the left; that will give you an idea of the force of his drawl. The study was followed by a time of worship led by me on guitar. So there we all were -- New Englanders, Southerners, and of course the only people who know how to speak English properly, you know, like us Californians like -- singing the old tune:
Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us. (clap, clap)
Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us. (clap, clap)
That we should be called the sons of God. (clap, clap)
That we should be called the sons of God. (clap, clap)
The last words and robust claps faded sweetly away, as we enjoyed a moment of silence, eyes closed, our hearts peaceful and aglow in the Spirit. Then Marge (excuse me, Maahj) -- a delightful no-nonsense older woman, whose home we were in, and whose "seen it all" life had made her skeptical to the core, especially of any thing new -- shattered the mood, her cynical words creaking like an old door: "Aaahh...I don't know. What does manner have to do with anything?" [Remember, -er words are pronounced -ah, hence manner = manna]

Silence...blank stares...thirty seconds... illumination...uncontrolled laughter (by everyone but Maahj). "No, not manna" [food miraculously provided to the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings]. "Manner" [see how, in what way], "Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us." "Oh, OK," said Maahj, a little embarrassed. "Because I wasn't sure why we were singing to God for manna. It sounded fishy."

I'll never forget how a simple mishearing due to pronunciation differences made someone think that us newcomers might be trying to introduce some new-fangled heresy into the church. My stomach hurt from laughing.

Sometimes, however, mishearings are not funny but frustrating. A road sign in Massachusetts says "Gloucester" (three syllables: Glou-ces-ter) but it is pronounced by the locals, "Glos-tah." This matters when you're completely new to the area and you drive past Gloucester and stupidly keep heading til kingdom come because you're looking for Glosta. "That's what he said, right Hon?" "Don't look at me." "Arrgh! Now you know why men don't ask for directions. From now on, I'm having these people write it down."

Of course the Bostonian will say that the problem is MY mishearing due to MY accent. Because, I mean sure, any reader of the English language knows that Gloucester is pronounced Glostah, Haverhill, Havrl, car, cah, yard, yahd. So I scowl at him and give him the "thumbs up" and walk away, because, I mean sure, every American knows it can't mean anything other than "excellent."

There are of course times when mishearing can be costly and even rupture relationships.

I have my wife's permission to share this story. One time Anita and I ended up in a big argument as a result of mishearing on both our parts. I was trying to encourage her artistic drawing skills and how I thought she had a gift and should pursue it. But Anita heard something like this coming out of my mouth: "I think you should pursue this artsy-fartsy avenue because you have no significant intelligence or admirable skills to do anything that's really important in the world." I of course proceeded to defend myself vigorously that I did not say or mean that; and Anita -- who started out, I thought, as the object of my compassion and was now my opponent -- was just as recalcitrant that encouragement was most definitely not the way it came out.

But what I did not know, and what I only learned after we cooled down and spoke later, was that in the past some people had made similar statements that were a veiled way of saying, "We don't expect much from you; but maybe you can justify your use of air on this planet by doodling."

Anita had misheard me based on past hurt. I said one thing; she heard another. But I made matters worse because I also misheard her explanation. What she said was, "I don't want to be limited to this career path because people in my past have said things like this because they had so little expectations of me." But what I thought I heard was: "If someone I just met for the first time in my life, two seconds ago, were to tell me the same thing you just told me (in the exact words, vocal tone, and body language), I would have joyfully received it as praise, encouragement and support, and I'd be drawing them a thank you note right now." Translation? "I respect anyone but you."

I know of many, many blow-ups due at least in part to mishearing that has caused marriages to rupture, former friends and family members to hate each other, and even nations to go to war. I am grateful that Anita and I have had, in our 27 years of marriage, actually few blow-ups. But I would say (Anita can comment about what she thinks) that probably all of those major arguments had a significant element of mishearing to them, and some of them were the result of pure mishearing alone, and not on the basis of a fundamental difference about an issue.

Imagine how many fewer hurt feelings, fall-outs, and broken relationships there would be if we all made a conscious and consistent effort to clean out our ears daily of that annoying build-up of waxy gook in the form of excess baggage from our past, mood swings, poor listening habits, defensiveness, insensitivity, and self-centeredness? What a wonderful world it would be.

Next: Misinterpreting


Jacqueline said...

How valuable this writing was to me dear Rattus Scribus. I consider a good read one that makes me think, makes me laugh, makes me question and makes me have a light bulb moment, a great work!
You helped both Len and I explain the true journey of marital bliss. We quite often misunderstand each other because of past history. We once had a therapy session with a Christian older gent that said...Jacqueline, you experienced great love and such a healthy childhood while Len experienced great hate and a tramatic childhood. This will be a very interesting journey at finding love, right dab in the middle.

The Dutchess said...

Dear Rattus...thank you so much for this post..I am sitting here laughing outloud....My husband and I know these misunderstandings very well.Together we have found one mighty wapon to solve this problem..Humor..Often we make the problem bigger to also make it funny or rediculous..We both are very headstrong and stubborn..and we have a way with words...this can lead to interesting conversations..Do you know the(british) t.v serie Falwty Towers..or Monty Python's Flying circus..if you don't please find it on You Tube..After (or during) one of our misunderstandings my husband likes to do one of his ..silly walks...never fails...you should try it sometimes;)

Fete et Fleur said...

The mispronunciation of the word AUNT bothers me the most. Many of us mispronounce this word as ANT. No, I am not an ANT. I'm an AUNT!! People always look at me strangely here on the west coast when I pronounce it as AUNT.

This was great post!


Debbie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debbie said...

Ruben, Anita is so lucky to be married to you. You so perfectly described what we say and what we "hear". I had to laugh because my husband and I have often "misinterpreted" what we've said to each other. Communication is a learned thing that requires objectivity and when you love someone objectivity flies out the window. We all have our historis and our stories, our sorrows and scars - I guess the key is compassion. Also, love that you voted that Debbie is NOT a hater LOL! Being unemployed this long (as I'm sure Marie can attest to) does a number on your identity and self-esteem. But, I remain hopeful ... 2010 may bring great things!

Great post Ruben!


Judy said...

I love my husband very much. There are times that I get so frustrated with him. Many times he hears things totally different that what I am saying to him. I, of course, always understand what he is saying to me. Ha,ha,ha,ha.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Another wonderfully communicated post my dear! And yes, I am so lucky and blessed to have you!!! I am so happy that you are writing on a regular basis. Que le Seigneur t'accorde tous tes souhaits!! Anita

Edie Marie's Attic said...

Oh yes, it's quite an art, disciphering the the English language in different parts of our country and other parts of the world. My darling DIL took me on a cross country trip for 2 wks this spring and I got to hear accents from Texas to NYC. And determining what some folks were trying to say was part of the fun.

I found part of the joy of traveling on the Staten Island Ferry was not just the breathtaking beauty of the Statue of Liberty but listening to all the different accents and languages going on around me like a chaotic symphony. What a thrill to hear such linguistic madness!

Thank you for such a wonderful post Ruben. This is something ALL people that are young and approaching marriage should read. But perhaps it's something that is really acquired by age & knowledge of the history of the people around us. What an excellent writing my friend.

Blessings, Sherry

Michelle Shaw said...

You certainly voice the truth, Ruben, and I always look forward to your insights on life. It is amazing how our past haunts us when we are listening to what others say. I have read so many books about living in the present moment (especially by J. Krishnamurti who has had a big influence in my life), but I am still unable to live each moment as if I'm starting anew. Does anyone have any suggestions for doing this?

Marie said...

I cannot begin to imagine how many problems our electronic communications have caused. As if we didn't already have enough frustrations understanding each other.
Carlos and I working on trying to communicate better and some days it seems like we're living in two different states. So much of that has to do with our upbringing. He from Costa Rica and I, a good old California girl, not to mention our family background. We'll get there but it takes work and desire. Thanks for the post Ruben. I came back for a second read.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Hey you! Thanks for visiting my pink post! You haven't seen what I did to the table; I took everyone's advice to add a white wash and then I used some gold tones to "Shabby Chic"it....it looks more like what I saw in my dream! Have a great day at school. Bisous, Anita