Say What you Mean!

 

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It’s a rare day now if the news does not begin with some horrific atrocity having been visited upon innocent civilians somewhere in the world. Little wonder that authorities, civil agencies, police forces etc have become jumpy. But I had to laugh when I read the story, today of a young boy in Lancashire having to be questioned by police because he’s written that he lives in a ‘terrorist’ house.

What he’d meant to write was ‘terraced’; an easy mistake to make, although I expect the dreaded OFSTED terrorists would themselves have something to say regarding the spelling standards of the ten year olds at the school. The internet is littered with student howlers such as this, many of them hilarious: Q. Where was the American Declaration of Independence signed? A. At the bottom.

See what I mean? Most demonstrations of lack of understanding are amusing, at least. But I’d guess that this time, with the way people feel about terrorists the incident was less entertaining and rather more uncomfortable. In any case, the family of the child has complained at his having been interrogated.

But it makes me wonder what proportion of the world’s problems are caused by communication difficulties. I’d say most of them [that is if you interpret communication loosely and include body language and cultural customs as well as written and verbal communication]. Then there is a further complication in the explosion of technical means of communication-email, texting and social networking; so many ways that misunderstandings begin. And once a misunderstanding has begun the difficulties can escalate in the tap of a key. I’m not suggesting a terrorist wearing a suicide belt can be talked out of their ‘mission’ here, but I’m guessing that the circumstances that have lead to extremism may have begun with communication mismatches.

I’ve just experienced this with members of my own family whilst attempting to set up a meeting from our spread out locations. I’m guessing the email I sent expressing my own thoughts was interpreted in a negative way that was not meant, resulting in an entire cancellation of said meeting. Ho hum…

For anyone who is interested in writing [anything] all this misinterpretation teaches a strong lesson in how to use language. We should be clear and concise. We should have an unambiguous, unmistakeable image in our own mind before we set finger to keyboard. Our understanding and knowledge of spelling and grammar should be comprehensive.

Verbal interactions involve their own difficulties, don’t they? We evolved using both sound and body language in our dealings, making a phone call more of a tricky action than we imagine. I ‘m sure the blind must become adept at hearing every nuance, double entendre and omission in a conversation but most of the rest of us will not have developed this skill.

Perhaps we should all revert to our most basic ways of showing others what we think or feel. After crying, the first thing a baby learns is to smile. We can’t smile in emails, texts or phone calls but hey-help is at hand with emoticons. There you go! Forget Esperanto. Use the new universal language.

 

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Grace’s Short Guide to Art. Do You Know What You Like?

If you go to http://banksy.co.uk/ and watch the video of the artist’s brilliant take on all things theme park you will notice the end caption:

Where dreams never end. For five weeks only.

This is the last laugh. And he hasn’t missed a trick. For me, it is one of the qualities that defines an artist-that he has thought of it.

But Banksy-having started out as a subversive urban street artist has now become world renowned, collectable and presumably filthy rich. How does this sit with his satirical take on the paradoxes that make up everyday life? He is fully aware of the irony of the situation. In 2007, after three works of his sold at Sotheby’s for six figure sums, he posted on his website:

“I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit”

What makes art appreciable? What makes art ‘art’, even? Once upon a time it was all about painting-religious or representational. Further back still it was a form of communication-used perhaps to tell others where the best herds of deer could be found or to boast of prowess in bringing home the venison.

Now though it has all become more complex, with disputes over what actually constitutes art, as artists seek to stretch the boundaries using video, installation, sound or themselves. They plunder the depths of their own personal lives [as in unmade beds] or use politics and social comment.

I like art and I enjoy gallery-going, except that in my shallow, unappreciative way I have to be entertained. The art must be ironic, witty or downright hilarious; or it must have caused a stir in the press, be controversial, thought-provoking or have been made in a unique way [as in unmade beds].

The latest offerings from The Turner Prize contestants provoked a flurry of comments along the lines of ‘anyone could do that’, a hackneyed old phrase that is trotted out every year as the December judging draws close. This year it is to be held in Glasgow, a refreshing change from London. The four offerings are some coats draped over the back of chairs, urban development as effected by a group of artist/designer/architects, a work of operatic sound and a multi-media presentation about something military and/or industrial.

I admit to being at a loss to comprehend any of these works except for the urban development project [which strikes me as a worthy undertaking though not what I would understand as ‘art’]. But perhaps you have to go and look at the exhibition before anything makes sense? Or does it have to make sense?

I won’t be travelling to Glasgow to see the Turner Prize exhibition, but I will be interested to know the outcome-albeit suppressing the ‘Emporer’s New Clothes’ syndrome that sneaks into the back of my head when delving into the mysterious depths of art. How about you?

There’s No Place Like Home…

So after a five week trip we were home. I’d looked forward to returning. I always do. I am always eager to see how the garden has junglified, what’s in the post, how everything looks.

After a concentrated and manic unpacking of the van, a small assault on the laundry mountain and a cup of tea we set upon the post. A bundle of foot-stool height letters yielded precisely 4 items as follows:

  • One communication from the bank regarding my granddaughter’s savings account
  • One communication from the bank regarding ‘changes to regulations’
  • One communication from the health service regarding national bowel cancer screening [largely irrelevant for reasons followers of this blog already know]
  • Several, scruffy, hand-delivered communications from ‘Keith-yer-tenant’

The bubble of anticipation that accompanied our return began to ebb. ‘Keith-yer-tenant’ [not his real name any more than Grace Lessageing is mine, although this rendering of it does contain elements of how he announces himself every telephone call he makes to advise us of a problem] and his partner are occupants of a small flat we rent out and have been our tenants for a number of years. During those years their tenancy has weathered some initial teething troubles, such as breeching the tenancy agreement, deciding he would prefer to pay rent weekly rather than monthly and ringing up to request changes of light bulb, help to solve the problem of the bathroom floor being wet after bathing, to express astonishment at learning that soaking in vinegar will clean a shower head and to claim forty nine pence for a tin of soup whose label got wet inside a cupboard.

This time Keith-yer-tenant has opted to punish us for having the audacity to be away by presenting us with receipts for items he has had to replace and inform us that he has deducted the cost of said items from his rent. We were just a little confused by the price of £2.50-which seems somewhat steep for a 13 amp fuse, but then remembered that he must have supplemented the price with some compensation for the shoe leather involved in going to purchase the fuse plus the trauma of having to a] suffer the inconvenience of the malfunction caused by a fuse blowing and b] having to actually replace it.

Still it should be acknowledged that Keith-yer-tenant has made a real effort to solve a problem all by himself, rather than seek assistance from Steve, the handy plumber neighbour we have asked to be on call while we are away. That K-y-t is not over fond of Steve is not something we can address. Steve is charming and accommodating and has changed K-y-t’s light bulbs on several occasions.

K-y-t is by no means the most problematic of renters I’ve encountered. I began by letting rooms in a previous life, when a newly single mum in my forties with a mortgage and a decrepit hovel to renovate. The antics of one or two lodgers are immortalised in my debut novel, ‘The Year of Familiar Strangers’ [available from Amazon].

Check This Out!

It would be an understatement to say I flounder in the waves of new technology. No sooner do you begin to get a grip on some gadget, software or device then some new upstart replacement arrives and you must begin again. Nevertheless there is the odd innovation that I do, after some tuition and practice start to get the hang of-even derive some satisfaction from and appreciate.

Take automatic check-outs. At last, after studious avoidance, suspicion, trial, many failed attempts, instruction and practice I am able to process my shopping through the complicated business of self-check-out totally unaided [sometimes]; I am able to bag things without the strident voice admonishing ‘unauthorised item in the bagging area!’ I can manage to tell it I have my own bags and collect the points on my loyalty card. Even so there are blips, like this morning’s debacle of the machine refusing to acknowledge my bananas.

I can see the benefits of self-check-outs. They cut down queues, take up less space and time and negate the need to engage with real people. Wonderful! But actually I am getting to an age where I’ve begun to enjoy those mini conversations, those minor snippets of small talk-with the person queuing in front of me or behind me; with the baby sitting in the trolley, with the person sitting behind the check-out or the boy scouts helping to pack the stuff. And if those of us who have company at home want to speak to others-what of those who lead solitary lives, these moments of minimal chit-chat the only conversational encounters in their day?

And what will those check-out workers do when the machines finally edge them out of employment? Nobody wants to be labelled a Luddite or to stand in the middle of the road of progress, but what are the employment options for manual workers whose occupations are being usurped by machines?

The Japanese [who else?] have designed and manufactured a ‘drone waiter’; a flying tray that delivers meals to diners. I don’t know if it is programmed to intone ‘Enjoy your meal’ or ‘have a nice day’ or to return and ask ‘is everything all right for you?’ but I doubt if it can process the reply. What if your steak is underdone, your side salad hasn’t appeared or the wine is corked? What on Earth are all the resting actors to do to support themselves in between roles, if waiting at tables becomes a redundant job?

Technology has come a long way, no more so than in the field of communication; but the future holds a bizarre vision. Silent people queueing to commune with machines, restaurants full of silent customers jabbing at screens. Will we lose the power of speech and the ability to look anyone in the eye? Perhaps our personal machines can take on our communication for us? Why not? Get your mobile device to speak to your friend’s mobile device. Get it to select and order your meal-why stop there? Get it to eat the meal, tip the drone waiter, call the driverless cab and go home. Who needs people anyway?

Laugh and the World Laughs with You?

An old man goes to a church, and is making a confession:Man: “Father, I am 75 years old. I have been married for 50 years. All these years I had been faithful to my wife, but yesterday I was intimate with an 18 year old.” Father: “When was the last time you made a confession?” 

Man: “I never have, I am Jewish.” 

Father: “Then why are telling me all this?”
Man: “I’m telling everybody!”

Is this religious joke offensive? It might be deemed by either Catholics or Jews to be so, although I doubt it-because all of those of Catholic or Jewish faiths that I have ever known have had mature, balanced senses of humour. All of them would be able to enjoy, share or even initiate a joke about their own religion and I believe people of the Jewish faith, particularly are fond of Jewish jokes.

The world has experienced a dispiriting couple of weeks. The ghastly events in France, more grim action in Belgium and Germany.

In Saudi Arabia a perfectly peaceful man who wished to share his views has not only been imprisoned for them but is to publicly flogged every week for months. Again in Saudi Arabia unseasonal snow has led many to commit the sin of having fun by constructing snowmen. The building of snowmen is now forbidden. If you were to read this in a satirical magazine it would be funny, but it isn’t-it’s true.

In Nigeria such horrendous atrocities have been committed in the name of religion that it is difficult to believe humans can have wrought them.

To me, a sense of humour is one of the most basic qualities of humanity. One of the fundamentals that sets us aside from the animal kingdom and makes us recognisable to each other. Aside from crying in order to address its most pressing needs, a baby’s first communication is generally a smile, followed swiftly by laughter.

The ability to be self-deprecating, to not only participate and enjoy in a joke against yourself, your appearance, your age, your gender, your disability or your race but to tell one; this must be one of the most engaging aspects of any personality.

Whatever has happened to the world? Have vast swathes of people had sense of humour amputations? Or has some odd mutation taken place that has resulted in them being born without it?

Nevertheless there are still many brave, balanced, intelligent people prepared to satirise religions, and still some who will joke about their own faith-even Islam.

For myself, I am an atheist. If anyone wishes to joke about atheism I would be delighted. I take my atheism very seriously, but not as seriously as my dedication to humour and to humanity.

Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!

                Whilst there is an increasing distance of years between my [proper] working life and retirement, there are still situations and occurrences that remind me of it. My last years were as a first school teacher. Seven year olds. Children of this age and younger retain an egocentric personality. They want attention. They crave praise. They want to stand out, be heard. What they patently do not want is to be ignored, especially by the adults charged with their care. The skill of an infant teacher lies, principally in managing to give each and every one of the children in their care the conviction that they are infinitely special and unique-which of course, they are.

                And what is it about adult life that reminds me of this? It is Facebook behaviour. Why? Because without exception, every post you read, watch, appreciate, scoff at has been displayed for the purpose of nurturing the ‘friend’s’ ego.

                I once shared an enormous classroom area with another teacher. There were, at any time, between sixty and seventy small children in this area, all clamouring for attention, for their shrill, little voices to be heard. As teachers we learned to capitalise on this desire for attention; we harnessed it. We used it to enhance experience. We facilitated ‘speaking and listening’ sessions. In those days we simply called it ‘sharing’. Of course there were very many tots and only a limited slot available. It was over-subscribed. Certain confident, precocious, verbose children dominated the session. My teacher partner conceived the brilliant idea of issuing ‘sharing’ tickets, like library tickets, that, once used could not be re-issued until every child had had a turn…Naturally there were, besides those who monopolised the session, some who never uttered, who had to be coaxed and cajoled into issuing a few words.

                On Facebook everyone [I do not except myself from this] wants attention. There are some who feel moved to offer up every nano-moment of their day, from what they’re cooking for dinner to what they can see from their window. There are those who feel the need to change their profile picture with monotonous frequency and elicit a gushing flow of complimentary comments. There are those like myself who post up album after album of snaps, [although I do try to keep them to a modest number-nobody is going to plough through 200 photos, wherever you’ve been]. And there are those who, in the absence of any pearls of wisdom to impart rake up quotes and sayings to share, often accompanied by pictures-flowers, baby animals, rainbows. These missives litter the screen like the pavement outside MacDonalds.

                The fact is, just like a class of small children, everyone wants to talk but nobody really wants to listen. Social networking? More ‘personal broadcasting’ perhaps?

It’s Only Words

                Does it matter if language disappears? Languages, of course have been disappearing at the rate of knots for many years. Some have never had any written form, so can only be sustained by anyone who cares enough to perpetuate them. There are around 6,700 languages spoken in the world but half may be lost before the century ends. Many would say it was a good thing, a blessing; that it might lead to less misunderstanding, more global cohesion, but our language is what defines us. It is our frame of reference and the means on which our culture rests. Cavemen communicated with their paintings on the walls, their own language, then came hieroglyphics and so written language developed in myriad directions.

                As a child at primary school, learning ‘English’ in the fifties, the exercises I undertook were very different to those taught and practised in schools today. There was nothing specific to address ‘speaking and listening’. Our early writing was ‘copy writing’. Those who’d whisked through their first set of reading books [‘Janet and John’ for me] and picked up the basics could begin their own amoebic scribbling, writing ‘news’ or rudimentary stories. We laboured over grey workbooks, completing page after page of exercises that involved completing phrases and sayings eg ‘a stitch in time saves ____’ or ‘many hands make light ____’; or we’d have had to learn collective nouns- ‘a ______ of geese’, ‘a _____ of sheep’, ‘a ______ of fish’ –or even, ‘a flock of _____’!

                Oddly, I enjoyed completing these exercises. They were like games or puzzles to me, except that I was not allowed to race ahead with them, or if I did my prize was to ‘help’ someone who was struggling, not a task I relished.

                I would guess there are few children-or adults these days who would know what the collective noun for porpoises is or what you should not put all your eggs in. But does any of it matter? I feel that it does, because the more our language shrinks, the less we have at our disposal to make ourselves understood, and misunderstandings are the cause of many of the world’s troubles.

                Texting, emails, symbols for words, abbreviations, acronyms-these are all the tools of expediency that we’ve come to expect, and from which we can never look back. This is progress. But I still say that the bedrock of language must never be dumbed down, never be forgotten, or we will have less to communicate with than the cavemen did!