Misunderstandings

‘Beware of the half-truth. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half.’

Author Unknown
How to Avoid Misunderstandings And Conflicts Through The Right ...

The Western Cape is no longer testing patients who present with flu-like symptoms. So sick people have to assume they have COVID-19 until they are well and are often quarantined for up to 14 days, even though they only have normal flu, because those other nasty germs haven’t gone away because Big Brother Corona is on the rampage.

Consequently, a week or so ago, we had so many facilities staff members absent and booked off for a significant period that we were forced to contract with a cleaning company for a few days, for additional staff to ensure the school was clean, given all the additional hygiene routines that are required with the new protocols connected to protecting our school community from the COVID-19 virus.

Although this was mentioned to a small group of staff, the reasons behind the move were not understood or properly explained (I realise now) to the staff in all three schools on campus. The next week we began hearing rumours that our facilities staff were looking into signing up with unions and there appeared to be general unrest on the staff, which surprised me because we have had a peaceable, open relationship with our staff in the time I have been at the school. It was only at a routine meeting a few days later that one employee eventually spoke up and asked, ‘What is this with these other cleaners?’

In a moment of clarity, I saw the cause of the misconception. The staff thought we were planning to outsource our cleaning function permanently. Fortunately, I was able to explain the misunderstanding easily enough and reassure them that their jobs were safe, and our institution’s relationships returned to normal. However, I realized then how a simple misunderstanding can have massive consequences whether at work or at home. Trust takes ages to build up and one miscommunication or misunderstanding can destroy it.

In other news, my child who shall remain anonymous, was instructed last week to give away packets of old clothes I’d collected from the early days of lockdown when I was gung ho about tidying. ‘But not the coats and evening dresses in the cupboard,’ I said (several times). Needless to say, I got home on Friday to find the entire cupboard bare of not just the old clothes but all my winter and evening wear.

What I learned from these two experiences were the following three things:

  1. Communication is so important – and, as leaders we should consider in advance how decisions may appear, in order to forestall possible panic (not to mention losing one’s coats).
  2. Honesty and transparency are essential for trust.
  3. Get the whole story.
  4. Fact check everything – surely Trump’s aversion to the truth has taught us that!
  5. Apologise when you break rules one to three.
  6. And forgive others when they get things wrong.

If only characters like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Othello, to name but a few of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes had had the benefit of hindsight and an opportunity to make good. Then again, what the appearance-reality theme illustrates in so many of his plays is precisely how ruinous misunderstandings can be.

The magnitude of Shakepeare’s genius is in his depiction of the genuine human condition. Unfortunately, we often react (and overreact too) before checking whether we have been properly informed. It’s not necessarily the equivocations of our enemies which cause such misunderstandings, it has also happened that major events in history have resulted from misinterpretations caused by mistranslations:

Did you know that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, because of a mistranslation of the Japanese word ‘mokusatu’ (‘We withhold comment’) as ‘We are treating your message with contempt’ (in response to ‘Will you surrender?’). You’d think they would have checked such a thing, but President Truman essentially ordered the deaths of a quarter of a million people because of that!

 History is littered with such poor translations, from Krushchev’s Russian as more threatening than he was being, to the Maori’s being shafted at Waitangi by the Brits. Mars was identified as potentially having intelligent life after the ‘canali’ (which an Italian astronomer mapping the planet’s ‘seas, channels, continents’ called them) were translated into English as ‘canals.’

We all know about the concept of ‘broken telephones’ where hearers repeat a story slightly differently each time in the retelling, sometimes to the point that the original meaning is completely distorted. It’s how rumours spread and very few check with the original speaker to corroborate the accuracy of what has been quoted.

‘Nice guys finish last’ is a misrepresentation of what a baseball manager (Leo Durocher) actually said and Sherlock Holmes never said, ‘Elementary, dear Watson.’ Nobody says, ‘Play it again, Sam’ in Casablanca. The much-maligned Marie Antoinette probably never said ‘Let them eat cake (‘gateau’)’ although the person who did, used the word ‘brioche’ which is a type of bread enriched with butter and eggs so the intention was the same, but still.

One has to ask how many men have felt encouraged to explore their baser instincts because of that inaccurate reflection of Leo Durocher, who was not encouraging negative behaviour when he pondered aloud that an opposing team had really ‘nice guys in it.’ How many patronising mansplainings or putdowns have concluded with ‘Elementary, my dear Watson?’ I wonder how many wannabe seduction moments have included the faux quote from Casablanca.

Sometimes of course misunderstandings are just incorrect use of grammar: Neil Armstrong’s famous ‘one small step for man; a giant leap for mankind’ is nonsensical and should have been ‘one small step for A man; a giant leap for mankind.’

Computer algorithms are not exempt. The Mariner 1 crash in 1962 was caused by a missing overbar (a small line placed above script). I wonder if that’s what happens to the bank code when I use my card at the grocery store?…

One of the problems facing educators in this Age of Corona teaching is the inability to read the faces of our students, because of the mandatory, ubiquitous masks. Unless a person has extremely expressive eyebrows, has expressive forehead furrows, or crinkles their eyes up when they smile, it’s really hard to know what they are thinking and we cannot tell how they are feeling. Since relationships are so important to us in education, I think it’s time we encourage bushy eyebrow exercises in Life Orientation classes to accommodate the need to project and interpret brow gymnastics.

Life is so fraught with miscommunication, one could be forgiven for feeling paralysed by indecision at times. Take marriage for instance, where we often end up in arguments over silly misunderstandings. But there is another way to look at it: in the words of Oscar Wilde,

‘The proper basis for marriage is mutual misunderstanding.’

The Maestro thinks I’m beautiful – I’m going with that…

Read More on this subject:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_them_eat_cake

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305887589_Thats_Not_What_I_Meant_How_Misunderstanding_Is_Related_to_Channel_and_Perspective-Taking

https://www.toptenz.net/top-10-times-miscommunication-had-awful-consequences.php

https://www.scribendi.com/advice/expensive_grammar_mistake.en.html

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