“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” –George Bernard Shaw

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I was born and raised in Georgia. When I graduated from college (also in Georgia), I had the good fortune to be hired by IBM to work as a software developer on the National Air Traffic Control project. I was only twenty years old, nerdy, and extremely shy when I headed off alone into the strange world of corporate America hundreds of miles from home. I wonder now where I got the courage.

The Air Traffic Control project was being developed at the National Aviation Facilities Experimental Center (NAFEC) in New Jersey. New Jersey? I had rarely been out of the state of Georgia! I was vaguely aware that my southern accent might be a problem. Little did I know.

Driving my father’s Dodge Dart that he had lent me until I could buy a car of my own, I crossed the state line into New Jersey and stopped to get gasoline. That was before the days of self-service stations so an attendant came out to help.

“Fill ‘er up?” he asked.

I nodded. So far, so good.

When he had topped off the fuel, he appeared again at my window. “Anything else?”

In my most polite, Southern-laced voice, I asked, “Would you please check the awl?”

He looked at me like I was from another planet. “Huh?”

I thought maybe he was hard of hearing, so I repeated myself, slower and louder. “Would   You   Please   Check   The   Awl?”

He responded a little slower and louder. “H-U-H?”

Somehow we managed to bridge our communication gap. I can’t remember – maybe we used sign language – but he figured out what I was saying. He checked the oil, gave me a thumbs-up, dropped the hood, and came back to my side of the car.

“Anything else?” He looked a little wary.

Now, when I was growing up, my father owned an electrical contracting business. The business had a small fleet of trucks that the employees used, and my father had all the trucks serviced and fueled at one particular service station. We took our personal cars there as well. The people who owned that service station were very nice and obviously wanted to keep Dad’s business, so they always checked everything, whether you asked them or not. One service they provided was vacuuming the floor of the cars, so I asked the NJ attendant, “Would you please vacuum my car?”

In my insulated youth, I didn’t realize other parts of the country may not have the same devotion to customer service that I had experienced. The man standing by my window responded with a phrase I’ve heard on a few occasions since then, but that was the first time.

“Lady,” he said, “are you kidding me?”

I paid him for the gasoline and drove away from that first New Jersey encounter with a realization that understanding the world was going to be a whole lot harder than I had imagined.

* * *

A few years later, still in New Jersey and still very shy, I met the man who would become my husband. Our first meeting was not an example of love at first sight. As a matter of fact, it may be a primary illustration of miscommunication so total that only Providence could have overcome it to bring us together again. (Well, that and the fact that I had just bought a Jaguar XKE convertible.)

If you ever meet Frank, ask him about that first meeting. He loves to relate the story, and he embellishes it with new details on each re-telling so that I hardly recognize who he’s talking about anymore. But it’s such a great example of two people so completely misunderstanding each other that I used a variation of it in my first novel, The Watch on the Fencepost.

* * *

And that brings me to the point of this blog post. Miscommunication can add spice to a story. We often talk about conflict as a way to keep a reader’s attention, and misunderstanding between two people is an excellent way to introduce conflict into a story.

There are a semi-infinite number of other ways miscommunication can enhance a plot. A detective might misinterpret a clue. Directions could be misconstrued. Characters can make assumptions about each other that are simply wrong. And then there’s the unreliable narrator or a character who deliberately misleads others. Anything that creates confusion, misdirection, or conflict can be great story-telling elements.

And of course, miscommunication is a great source for humor. Just ask Abbot and Costello.

* * *

So TKZers: What ways have you experienced miscommunication in your life? Do you have any humorous anecdotes you’d like to share? How have you used miscommunication in your novels? 

Unfortunately, I’ll be traveling on Monday and will only have access online periodically. I look forward to reading everyone’s comments, and I’ll respond to them all as soon as I can.

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The Watch on the Fencepost – Can Kathryn and Phil overcome their misunderstandings to solve the mystery behind her parents’ recent deaths?





22 thoughts on “Miscommunication

  1. Loved this. As a girl from Alabama dropped into a New York school, I can relate.

    We moved a lot due to my father’s job. I learned that whatever the accent was, I had to master it by lunchtime if I had any hope of survival, and then transition back by dinnertime so as not to alarm my mother.

    • Good morning, Cynthia.
      Love this line: “I learned that whatever the accent was, I had to master it by lunchtime if I had any hope of survival,”

      Learning to speak someone else’s “language” is one of life’s great lessons. I wonder if kids today have the same issues. Maybe they just text each other. 🙂

      Have a good week.

  2. Your post also reminds me that miscommunication has been used to great effect in tv comedies. Among others, growing up I loved to watch Three’s Company, which did its share of shows based on miscommunication. I still miss John Ritter.

    It’s not just southern accents that people sometimes have a hard time understanding. In Maryland, those on the western shore spoke differently than those on the eastern shore. Example: Someone from the western shore saying “idear” instead of “idea”.

    And I can’t remember if its western shore or PA, but would run across people who said ruum (sounding like a cross between ‘rum’ and ‘vroom, vroom’) when they meant a room.

    I do remember gas station attendant days and nope, don’t remember them vacuuming in Maryland either.

    • Good morning, BK!

      Different regional accents add so much depth to our national experience. We’ve lived in different areas of the country over the years, and there’s always a lot to learn in each one.

      I think vacuuming the car was pretty unusual. I’ve never found that anywhere else.

      Have a great week.

  3. Thanks for sharing that great gas station story, Kay.

    My miscommunication stories deal with New Orleans. People there would tell me stories about “Earl,” how this guy or that guy made a lot of money with “Earl.” I needed a hook-up with him. Quickly. I eventually learned that “Earl” was “oil.” Oh. That was slick.

    I also frequently encountered the phrase “Where Y’at?!” as a greeting. I would respond, “Oh, I’m on Canal Street!” or something like that. “Where Y’at” in New Orleans means, “How are you?” I eventually figured it out.

    If someone in or from New Orleans tells you they’re “makin’ groceries” they aren’t cooking you breakfast. They’re heading to Rouses Market to go shopping.

    I could go on, but won’t.

    Have a great week, Kay.

    • Good morning, Joe!

      New Orleans has its own language. I’d never heard of “earl” for “oil” though. Sometimes I wonder how we ever managed to get anything done. 🙂

      Have a great week.

  4. Sometimes it’s not the accent. When we were first married, I was working as a teacher and the Hubster was working on his doctorate. I’d suggest going out for dinner, and he always said no. This bugged me, because we’d gone out a lot while in the dating, etc., phases. I finally said, “Why don’t you want to go to Shakey’s for a pizza or something?”
    His reply. “Oh, that’s not going out to dinner That’s going out to eat. That’s fine.”
    He was/is a stickler for accuracy. He’d come home from a meeting, I’d say “How was the conference?” and he’d say “It wasn’t a conference, it was a symposium.”

    • Good morning, Terry.

      Good stories. It’s funny that devotion to accuracy can be the cause of confusion. Husband/wife communications are the best.

  5. Great post, Kay. You had me laughing and spitting coffee when you asked the attendant to vacuum your carpets.

    In my medical practice, we had a lovely elderly lady who had grown up in England, then came to the U.S. after WWII. She was extremely polite and precise with her language. We never had difficulty with communication until we tried to explain how to obtain a stool specimen for colon cancer screening. The nurse went round and round trying to explain how to wipe the stool with toilet paper and dab it on the Hemoccult card. The patient continued expressing confusion, not understanding how wiping the stool would achieve anything, until the nurse realized that the “stool” was a the toilet in proper English.

    I hope your travels are safe today with no miscommunication.

  6. Good morning, Steve.

    Now you had me laughing with the story about your English patient. Perfect example of miscommunication.

    I guess vacuuming the car wasn’t normal in most parts of the country. I learned pretty fast how to vacuum my own car. 🙂

  7. I live in Missouri. In St. Louis where it is MissourEE. If I drive west or south I enter MissouriAH. Elaine Viets will tell you a skilled politician can code switch EE and AH as needed on a dime.

  8. Wonderful post, Kay! Your oil change experience is a great example. I had a long-time library patron who I met at the library right after she moved to Oregon from Georgia in 1999. There were a few times I had to interpret what she said, and vice-versa. (Example: a Pacific Northwest expression for expensive: “Spendy”). The best way to approach miscommunication is with a sense of humor and patience.

    On our first trip to Ireland, in 2010, my wife and I visited Cashel for two nights, to see the famous Rock of Cashel, a ruined cathedral. One evening we visited a pub near our B&B and discovered they were playing Bingo, a regular event there. We thought, why not, bought a couple of cards. A young man asked us if we needed a biro. A “biro”? I had no idea. After a quick back and forth, it turned out he meant an ink pen, called a “Biro” there after a local brand similar to our Bic pen 🙂

    Safe travels and have a great week!

  9. Hmm…miscommunication.

    Daily with my husband. I speak words, he speaks tools.

    Often with my grandkids…you get that picture. New words crop up daily, old words don’t mean the same as they used to.

    When I went on a medical mission to Vietnam several years ago, I was trying to pantomime where is the bathroom and somehow managed to offend the person I was trying to talk to. I never did figure out how.

    Lest you worry, I did find the bathroom. It wasn’t what I was used to, however . . . 🙂

    • That’s so funny, Deb. One thing I always know how to ask when we travel to a foreign country is “Where is the bathroom?”

      And families are the best for miscommunicating.

  10. I’m wary of misunderstandings, especially as plot points. They can be too shallow to hang a major incident on and, too often, could be resolved with a brief chat. They’re even considered a trope:
    Thus I’ve used few in my works. I use accents, but as in real life, people can figure out accents by listening respectfully, adding gestures, and asking questions. Probably the worst (best?) misunderstanding in my fiction does not hang on just one word or phrase, but an on-going predicament of the MC, Mr. Horus Blassingame:

    …I presented my papers. A glowering official grabbed them, examined them, and growled, “¿Neezgo twa guzen damisk?” He stared at me, waiting for a response.
    I had studied Deresthok for over six months at our company offices. The tutor had assured me that I was completely fluent in the vocabulary, which was complex, and in the grammar, which was even more so. Yet now I had not a single clue as to the meaning of any word the man had spoken to me. I grew flustered and blurted out, “Shtandrek nuss,” then added in Anglic, “I don’t understand.” My stomach began its usual gymnastics for this sort of situation. In my haste, I’d used the impolite Deresthok form of “not.”
    “¿Neezgo twa guzen damisk!” the official repeated, a bit louder, shaking my papers….

    With the help of a bystander, Horus figures out this Twilight-Zonish situation:

    …My tutor had once, in passing, mentioned that Deresthia had two very different dialects, one used in the capital and one used mostly by farmers, laborers, and other simple people in the outlying areas. The tutor had told me this, but all the while he had evidently, for some unknown reason, been teaching me the countryside dialect, instead of the metropolitan version I’d requested. I’d been bamboozled….

    Things get worse, and Horus is soon in deep hoskaplop.

        • I just ordered your book. (Don’t hold me to when I’ll finish reading it. My TBR stack is higher than the national debt.)

          Still, it wounds like a good read, and I’m looking forward to it.

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