What we have here is a failure to communicate

Published 2:01 pm Friday, May 3, 2024

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By Lloyd Albritton


Ronald Reagan was called “The Great Communicator” because he had a way with words.  I’m not exactly sure what that means.  Does it mean people understood what Ronnie intended to say, or does it mean they only thought they understood?  I for one thought I understood the president to say that his economic plan would balance the budget.  In retrospect, I think what he really said was that his economic plan would balance the budget if he did not have to spend so much money on defense to defeat communism.

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The world has been thoroughly confused by language ever since Noah built that Tower of Babel and hauled all those animals up in an elevator.  It’s entirely understandable that we would have communications problems between the nations who speak different languages, but what bothers me is that it’s not much better when we communicate with one another in the same language.  In my efforts to be a good writer, I have always been fascinated by the art of communication and I work hard at saying what I want to say in a way that others will understand.  In spite of my devotion to that cause, if there is anyone more misunderstood than I am, I’d like to know who it is.

The lower animals don’t use formal language at all, and they seem to communicate just fine with a simple repertoire of grunts, whines, barks, meows, moos or hee-haws.  I wonder if dogs and cats ever correct one another.  Does a hound dog try to tell a Cockapoo how to bark properly?  Do cows need to learn a second language to communicate with hogs?  I don’t think so.  I’ve never seen an oinking cow, or a mooing hog.

Language is supposed to help us communicate better, but I’m not so sure about that.  In the English language we have way more words than we need, and the few words that we actually use, we can’t pronounce.  Building a big vocabulary is sort of like learning to be a good dancer.  If you get too good at it, you can’t find anybody to dance with.  Most people think you’re just trying to show off your footwork.  Likewise, what good does it do to know a lot of words if nobody understands them?  It certainly doesn’t seem to improve communication.

On a recent morning I had a miscommunication with my wife.  I asked her, “Have you had breakfast yet?”

“I ate a couple of those oatmeal cookies in there,” she replied.

“Well, that ain’t no kind of breakfast,” I said.  “How about I make us some grits.”

“No, thank you.” she said.  “I have some leftover rice in the refrigerator.  I think I will eat that for breakfast.”

“Okay then!”

A few moments later, I opened the refrigerator door and saw a small bowl of leftover rice there on the shelf and I thought, “That leftover rice my wife said she had for breakfast sounds like a pretty good idea to me.  I think I will just have the rest of the rice that she did not finish instead of cooking a fresh pot of grits.”  And so I did.

A few moments later, she entered the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door to discover her leftover bowl of rice gone.  “Oh, where is my leftover bowl of rice?” she exclaimed.

Quickly choking down my last spoonful of rice and egg, I replied, “I just ate it!   I thought you said you had already eaten rice for breakfast.  I was just trying to use up what was left.”

And, there you go!  When author John Gray wrote his famous book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, in 1992, he exposed a profound truth.  Men and women simply do not think alike and for this reason we often fail to communicate with one another.  Even when both are highly educated and use a broad, precise vocabulary, miscommunications occur.  In fact, I suspect that education makes it worse.  College professors and professional journalists do not seem to communicate with one another any better than my dog and my cat as they square off at one another in the back yard.  Each goes his or her own way and their differences are thereby quickly resolved, while we intelligent humans with all our language skills just keep on yapping and yapping at one another.

A simple poem often runs through my mind, one of my favorites, when I read the daily news headlines.  It is entitled

The Monkey’s Disgrace:  Three monkeys sat in a coconut tree discussing things as they seem to be.  Said one to the others, “Now listen you two, there’s a certain rumor that can’t be true, that man descended from our noble race.  Why, the very idea!  It’s a disgrace.  No monkey ever deserted his wife, starved her babies and ruined her life.  And you’ve never known a mother monk to leave her babies with others to bunk, or pass them on from one to another, ‘til they scarcely know who is their mother.  And another thing you’ll never see: a monkey build a fence around a coconut tree, forbidding all the other monks a taste, and letting the coconuts all go to waste.  Why, if I built a fence around my tree, starvation would force you to steal from me.  And another thing a monk won’t do:  Go out at night and get on a stew, or use a gun, a club, or a knife, to take some other monkey’s life.  Yes, man descended, the ornery cuss, But, brother he didn’t descend from us.”

I think I understand why God confused the languages at the tower of Babel.  He probably just got tired of hearing his children arguing all the time.  And so, I will close with these final words from the Old Witch Doctor, “Oo ee, oo ah ah.  Ting, tang, walla walla wall bing bang.”  And that’s all I have to say about that.