The Miracle of Everyday Communication
April 4, 2007
At the Hudson News in Penn Station, NY, a heavily-accented man asked a heavily-accented cashier for a fresh 1-dollar bill to replace his natty one, because a machine wouldn’t accept it. It was one of many times when I’ve marveled at the fact that people *ever* understand each other. It took him two tries for her to understand what he was asking, and two or three verbal rebuffs for him to comprehend and walk away. It reminded me of a time in Bologna, sitting on a bus with my new friends from the hostel. A Mexican boy and a Chinese girl were having a discussion. And it worked as long as the ideas were linear.
It also reminded me of a time in DC, well, actually, nearly every time in DC, when I would try to communicate with a stranger, or I would overhear strangers address one another. Transmission and reception were completely different things. In these situations, however, it wasn’t usually the fault of an accent, but rather the distractedness of at least one party, or their unwillingness to listen. Often the dynamic was that of a customer and a service provider, or of an authority figure and a subordinate. It made me wonder how anything ever happened, let alone advanced or innovated. The conspiracy theorist tendencies I had cultivated in New York were dampened a bit… if people couldn’t communicate even basic transactions with accuracy and attention in the nation’s capital, well, I had less to worry about on a grand scale.
Or maybe it was just me who couldn’t communicate in the local conceptual vernacular.