[This Commentary originally appeared in the September 20, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
I lied. I’m not on vacation. I won’t be back next week. I was on vacation last week. I did come back this week. Welcome to the wonderful world of newspaper deadlines. Normally, I would have written this last week, but I couldn’t because I was on vacation. I’ll be back next week, though.
Confused? Just wait ‘til you read the rest of this…
In the cosmos of printed matter, the here and now does not exist in the present tense. What you read today, the author wrote yesterday. What the author writes today, you will read tomorrow. One can envision a ragged writer tirelessly chasing the clock. The writer, trapped in a different time zone, will never catch that clock.
Of course, none of this bothers me because I am not a writer. Such things, along with other trivial philosophies like spelling and good grammar, have never polluted my mind (or my writing). My mother always says, “Chris, you’re smart enough to know how to speak and write well.”
I say, “Ma, do you understand me?”
“Yes,” she invariably replies.
“Ah ha!” I immediately respond, “As long as you understand me, does it matter if my tenses are not consistent or I rely too heavily on the passive form?” (Warning, the previous gibberish pertains to items authors find in the index of The Chicago Manual of Style which they use when they want to sound like writers.)
Needless to say, I began framing my argument in the above manner way back in Junior High School. I kind of like the point of the argument. It focuses on the most important objective of any form of communication, namely, the successful transfer of an idea or concept from one brain to another. The argument implies communications is a science. Furthermore, it depicts all the technical aspects of communications as ancillary fluff.
Most people find this common sense argument most compelling. It has the same attraction as the Horatio Alger story – roll up your sleeves, word hard and honestly, and you’ll eventually be rewarded. Horatio succeeds not because he has a PhD. and all the technical know-how associated with an advanced degree, but because he uses common sense to achieve his one and only objective. In short, he disregards the fluff.
Unfortunately, as some of you (especially the teachers) might have realized, the line of thinking I used with my mother insinuates a very unconstructive feeling. Everybody has this feeling at some point in their life. The feeling goes something like this: “All those books you read won’t teach you anything. They won’t teach you common sense.”
This logic tempts you. It tricks you. It makes you believe innate sense always overcomes studied thought. It allows you to put experience ahead of education, which in turn discounts the potential education offers. This logic demands you see before you believe. It infers what you see is what you get. This logic permits no creativity; hence, no growth. This logic must not be accepted.
As usual, then, my mother is right. She extols the virtue of doing the right thing. Specifically, she suggests the act of communication is not limited to the transfer of merely one idea, but includes the exchange of whole packets of ideas, thoughts and feelings.
What my mother tells me, and what I hear loud and clear, has nothing to do with the particular idea I am trying to get across at that point in time. She likens communications to art, not science. She says there are good artists and bad artists. People always come back to see good artists. People rarely give bad artists another chance.
So she successfully turns my argument back on me. She agrees making a point – getting people to understand you – is most important. She, however, adds her own corollary – to get people to understand you, you must first get them to listen to you.
With this amendment, the full scope of my mother’s wisdom blossoms before me. The whole bit – using good grammar, wearing nice clothes, keeping my room neat – says more about me than the words I use ever will. These subtle sights strike people before the sounds of my words even enter their ears.
People will only listen (and I mean really listen as opposed to politely listen) to people they trust. People trust people who care. People often measure one’s ability to care by their ability – and willingness – to care for themselves.
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]