Thursday, November 13, 2008

Is that "W-A-L-R-U-S"? - a Perspective on Words & Communication

Is that "W-A-L-R-U-S"? by Elizabeth Alraune
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A few years back, I went to London, England. I needed to get a passport-like photo taken, but the machine I wanted to use was out of order. When I called the company that owned the machine, I asked where they had another location. I was told, “Walrus.” “Walrus?” I confirmed. “Walrus,” was the response. I should have asked for the spelling, but the person had said, “Walrus.” I asked around, and no one knew where there was a “Walrus” until, that is, someone realized that “Walrus” was “Woolworths.” Apparently, the person I spoke with and I both thought we were saying the same thing – but boy, were we not!

Similarly, while I was there, I learned that elevators are called “lifts,” escalators are called “elevators,” what we would call subways are underground walkways for them, and what we would call subways in the US, are called “tubes” in the UK.

We speak the same language, don’t we? And yet, as you have probably realized, there is a great potential for misunderstanding.

In this case, it is quite easy to see how there would be an error. However if one did not know these differences, and did not know that there WAS a difference, can you imagine the frustration?

Asking around for “Walrus” was quite frustrating!

In a case like the above, it would probably be fairly easy to forgive a misunderstanding – and even define the differences. After all, most would recognize that it’s a different culture, and the differences are to be expected.

However, most people who live in a similar place would not be as likely to expect these types of misunderstandings from words. As a result, they would have expectations from a conversation, not realizing that they may define things, or hear something, differently than how the person who spoke it meant it.

What happens in those times when someone tells another “Woolworths", and the other hears “Walrus,” and neither knows what the other thinks they’ve said? Quite possibly there could be conflict, argument, upset. And neither would know how to fix it. After all, weren’t they both saying the same thing?

Hmmm. Does this sound like anything you’ve experienced?

My example is quite humorous in retrospect. But oftentimes when this happens it is not – especially not in the context of close or intimate relationships. We want, and expect, those closest to us to the person we need, do the things we want, and say all the right things. In some cases, this person may think they are, but how you hear, see, or experience it, has you feel otherwise.

The next time you have a disagreement, consider this: Words were just the beginning of your conversation.

- Ask the other person to tell you what they think was said – the words, and the meaning behind the words. Listen carefully for differences in “accent” and meaning.

- Ask for spellings. Is that “W-A-L-R-U-S?” In other words, “THIS is what I have heard, am I hearing your correctly?"

- Ask for pictures, “Can you show me a picture of the elevator, or describe it to me?” In other words, “How does (THE THING YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT) look, feel, sound to you?” How do you know what it “looks” like? How will you know it when you are it, experience it, or see it?

- Take no meaning, or word, for granted. If anything, consider that all that you “know” means something other than what you think.

It’s important to remember that we don’t all hear things the same way, and we don’t have the same experiences. Words are only the starting place for our communications. How someone experiences what we say will have greater impact on our conversation - and its effectiveness - than what we meant, or what we said.

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