Well, yeah, of course I'm the one who doesn't understand. Often. And I don't get it. Come on. Say what ya mean and mean what ya say. Is it really that difficult?
You know what my crime is? Not understanding what you were thinking when you said what you said, even though you did not say what you were thinking with your words. Yeah. That's a crime. You didn't know?
Take the recent kerfuffle (speaking of words, that's a superb one) about the use and misuse of the word "literally" and the resultant "allowance" that "literally" doesn't actually have to mean "literally". Which is just stupid. Yeah, evolution of words, common usage, popular culture, blah blah blah. If words don't mean what they mean, then what do they mean? You will notice that I refrained from saying "Words literally make me nuts" (in that second sentence up there). That would be incorrect. The list of things that literally make me nuts is too long to expound upon in this humble blog post. Yes, I know that I just confirmed that I am nuts. That's what I mean by meaning what you say.
So here's what I'm talkin' about. I'm talking' about specificity. And I'm talkin' about how, in the absence of specificity--which you are free to ignore, of course, no one knows what the hell you really said. If that doesn't bother you, no big deal. Maybe you're one of those "gist" people, and it doesn't really matter. Okay. As long as you don't proceed to expect other people to figure out specifically what you mean without you saying what you mean. Sure, do what you want. Despite the indignant tone of this post, I'm not the word police (though some days, I'd like to be.)
Stand behind what you say. Or what you don't say. That's all I'm saying.
Or to put it another way, we've all heard the expression "the pen is mightier than the sword". What does it mean? It means that words are powerful weapons for influencing people. And like weapons, we should be careful how we use them, no?
By now, you're wondering what triggered this particular rant on this particular Sunday afternoon. I'm glad you asked. I bet you think it's something little, something insignificant, because you know how even the littlest thing can get me going. In the larger scheme of things, you're right on that one. In the interest of defending my "sensitivity", I will say that anything that reaches the point at which I feel like pulling the hair out of my head in large clumps meets my standard for significant. Oh, and mocking my inability to magically and psychically traverse the space between words on a page and intentions in some stranger's mind...that doesn't help, either.
So here's what happened.
So recently, I went there, cash in hand, like the good little rule follower (stop snickering) that I am. Lo and behold, they have changed the system (much to the delight of most people, I understand.) Now there is no more distracted person in the little exit booth. The exit booths are empty. Now you have to pay for parking with your little ticket inside the station before you go to your car. I didn't know this, so I drove to the exit, where I felt, well, stuck, until I realized that the machine at the exit will allow you to pay by credit card. So I got out alive, is what I'm saying. Okay. I got it now. Hey, I can adjust to change. I'll know for next time.
A couple of weeks later, we had a snow storm. I was on my way into the city, and I thought maybe I would park and take the train in. I realized I had left my credit/debit card at home, and I wasn't sure if the machines inside (since, like the rest of society, leaves us with no actual human being with whom to interact) took cash. I pulled over, took out my trusty smart phone, and looked it up. It says "now you can pay with your debit or credit card". Nothing about cash.
Yes, this story is still about words, and is not an analysis of either electronic commerce or public transportation. Stay with me. I'm getting there.
I wondered, and I didn't want to get trapped in there at 11 p.m. like Alice gone down the hole, so I let it be. I vowed to get to the bottom of this another way, since there is no info on the website and the only way to go in there to check is, well, to park and pay 7 bucks.
So (I'm gettin' to it) yesterday something interesting happened. On a local town listserve, someone asked the question I had been having. She hadn't been there in a while, and she wanted to know "if you can still pay a human being in cash or at least pay a machine with a
credit card? I couldn't get a human on the phone to confirm ..."
Good question. Glad you asked.
The questioner got four responses in pretty short order (it's a very helpful list):
"pay station...you can use a credit card...I suspect you can use cash, but never have"
"has machines where you can pay by credit card...think one of the other ones takes cash"
"there's a machine, no more humans"
"you pay at the machines now"
Shoot. The conversation is over. The questioner is satisfied (because she asked an "either" question). I thought I was going to get my answer. And I still don't know.
There is a machine instead of a person now. Right. Knew that.
You can pay by credit card. Right. Knew that.
A couple people think there might be a possibility of using cash, but don't know.
So. I did what I do. I asked the list. I asked if there was anyone who knew if the machines take cash.
Get your yellow tape. This is the start of the crime scene.
Now I should say, because it really does matter to the gist of the whole story, that I did get my answer, and I got it right away. Like I said, it's a helpful list.
But that's not the only thing I got. I got emails. Several emails. In each of them, the person copied and pasted what they had written the night before, pointing out to me that they had already answered my question. No. They had not.
I didn't answer all of them, just thanked them. One of them, well, he was a little snarkier than the rest, and I just can't resist a good snark. Don't worry, I didn't tell him to meet me in the alley at midnight or anything. I explained that, for me (with my apparent disability), I didn't get from his statement a definitive answer about cash, so I was still confused, and I asked just to double check. He answered, insisting that his answer was really "clear enough" and "covered it". Okay. Whatever.
It made me think of a infamous video that we used when I worked in Hawaii. It was used to demonstrate the need for language and literacy intervention for young children, particularly those who do not speak Standard English at home, in order for them to succeed in school. In this video, researchers asked students to give them detailed instructions, step by step, to make a peanut butter sandwich. The answers went something like this:
"You put the peanut butter on the bread." (which resulted in the researcher getting the loaf of bread, sitting it on the table (in the wrapper), and balancing a jar of peanut butter on top, resulting in laughter and somewhat more detailed direction from the child).
Or "You use a knife" (which resulted in the researcher picking up a knife, but not knowing what to do with it).
This research made perfect sense to me. If you have a particular question, you need a particular answer. So why is it that these children need serious educational intervention, but people with graduate degrees who don't know the difference between giving a general vs a specific answer (and are defensive as all get out if you point out to them that you're looking for a clear answer to a particular question)? I don't get it.
"Wait, you really got this worked up about an incomplete answer on an email list?" No, not really. It was just a really good example. It irks me every day. I was just, as they say, carpe-ing the diem. It's a pet peeve. We all have pet peeves. This is one of mine.
Yeah, I process too much. Is that supposed to be news?
You may now commence with the comments on my poor word choice, grammar, sentence structure, or composition. All's fair in love and words, and I love irony as much as the next guy.
Have at it. But put your pen away in it's scabbard first, k?