CopyrightÓ 1999 Rusty Wright
Understanding: A valuable commodity
By Rusty Wright
Have you ever tried to communicate something important to someone whose language you could neither speak nor understand?
Once after a long trip by train, ferry and train from London to Paris, I needed to use the restroom. Not knowing the French word for "restroom" I wandered the Paris train station using every pronunciation of "toilet" that I could think of, to no avail. Finally someone pointed me in the right direction. Communication barriers can be frustrating.
Recently in England, though I could read and understand most of the signs and speakers, at times I found it hard to be understood. I remembered that all those "English" classes I had
enjoyed from grade school through college were actually teaching me to speak "American"
While shopping by telephone for bed-and-breakfast lodging in Stratford-upon-Avon, I had a bit of trouble finding what I needed. Not only were the B&Bs in Shakespeare's hometown heavily booked; my accent baffled one innkeeper who was perhaps more accustomed to Bard-like diction. The phone conversation went something like this:
Me: "Hello, may I please speak with Kate?"
Woman's voice: "Yes?"
Me: "Can you hear me OK? I'm trying to locate Kate who runs this B&B. Another innkeeper referred me to her."
"Yes, this is Kate."
"I wanted to ask about availability and rates for the weekend." We struggled through this discussion, she very kind but having a hard time with my dialect, I a bit perplexed that anyone who spoke with a seemingly refined British accent should have trouble with my "perfectly clear" articulation. Then we hit a roadblock.
"Do you have any non-smoking rooms?" I inquired gingerly.
"Non-smoking rooms. Rooms in which you don't allow smoking." (The Marlboro man has immigrated to the United Kingdom.)
"I'm sorry," Kate replied politely, but a bit exasperated. "I'm having a terrible time understanding your accent."
"Oh, please forgive me," I replied, sincerely wanting to communicate. "I'm sure my American pronunciation is unclear. Let me try again."
"Do you understand the word 'cigarette'?" I asked, seeking to balance ultra-clear enunciation with appropriate civility.
"Oh, yes," Kate replied warmly.
"How about the words 'cigar' and 'pipe'?"
"Oh, yes. I understand those words," explained Kate, apparently pleased.
"If I want to smoke a cigarette in the B&B room I rent from you, can I?"
"Oh, yes, of course you can!" responded Kate with obvious enthusiasm and a tone that seemed to send a friendly smile through the telephone lines.
"Well," I ventured, suddenly aware of the disaster I was approaching but unsure how to salvage the encounter, "I don't want to smoke a cigarette in my room and I don't want anyone else to either. Do you have any rooms like that?"
"Oh, no, I'm afraid we don't have anything like that," Kate informed me, a bit crestfallen. We ended the conversation cordially. A misunderstanding had caused a bit of confusion.
Understanding is a valuable asset and, of course, it relates to more than just language or accent. Mutual understanding is a foundation for healthy living. Without it, discordant exchanges can spark animosity, prejudice, hatred and worse. With it, friendships can flourish and harmony has a chance. Gaining it often takes hard work.
Maybe that's why the biblical Proverbs prize wisdom and understanding: "How much better it is to get wisdom than gold! And to get understanding is to be chosen above silver. ...Understanding is a fountain of life to one who has it."
I keep learning that study, practice, patience and a flexible attitude help develop the understanding needed to find French restrooms and British lodging. When it comes to understanding the more complex intricacies of human motivations and relationships, divine assistance seems to help. As Solomon, a Jewish king who penned many of the Proverbs noted, "The Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding." Wise words for daily living.
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