Sunday, 28 October 2012

Sunday 28th October - what I meant to say was...

The past few weeks have taught me a valuable lesson in communication - how meaning changes between what is written and what is read.

I knew that, of course. No-one, who has spent time in writing detailed instructions and comprehensive procedures, can fail to be aware that what one person writes can mean something entirely different to the reader.

There are lots of humorous examples; I enjoyed a running gag in one of Catherine Fox's novels, where two character share a love of ridiculous instructions. They would save them up, and mutter to each other when they passed in the corridor:

"Caution, this door is alarmed"

"Assistants will cut cabbages in half on request" (sign in a greengrocer)File:Cabbage and cross section on white.jpg

"Pierce with a pin and push off"

Sometimes these unintentional double meanings can have unforeseen consequences:

"Wait here while red light shows"

This used to be a common road sign. It seems clear enough, until you learn that in parts of Yorkshire, people routinely use "while" to mean "until". You would often hear people say things like "Wait here while the bus comes", or "I'll be in the cafe while you get here". Once this regional meaning of "while" was understood, the signs suddenly disappeared, replaced with "When red light shows wait here".

Recently, I received a fairly formal email requesting me to attend a meeting. Because of the surrounding circumstances, I read all sorts of dire and drastic consequences into the purpose of the meeting. I spent the intervening days feeling sick, apprehensive, and panicky and turned my world upside down, getting piles of paperwork together, and even planning whether I needed to, and could afford, to resign.

In the event, the request was just that. A request to attend a friendly, business-like, useful, productive, encouraging, meeting. No more, no less.


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