“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.
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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.
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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.
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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?