How Do We Learn to Miscommunicate?

Bad audio"Writing," said my misguided young friend, "is passé. Who needs spelling and grammar when we have podcasts? It's easier; it's faster; it's better! You dinosaurs with your keyboards . . . dude, you're on your way out."

It could happen, I guess. If the rumors are true, the average American high-school student's abysmal test scores point to devolution; our written language is suffering, and its current trajectory suggests a hard landing in some inaccessible wasteland just beyond the horizon. Really, it would be a relief in some ways. Endless typing gives way to effortless babbling; no more carpal-tunneled misery under a bare bulb in the time-honored writer's cubby. Freedom at last.

At the little sandwich shop where I frequently stop for lunch, the recent high-school graduate is insolent, as usual. She looks up as I enter; her dimpled, megawatt smile means she's about to say something adorably impudent.

"I'll shake you!" she says, her smile disappearing abruptly in mock seriousness.

I have to laugh. This isn't the sort of phrase you hear every day, and the delivery is perfect. She reminds me of my own daughter, who's about the same age. Attitude. I love it.

A couple weeks later—same sandwich shop, same girl—the disturbing truth comes out. I'm standing at the counter watching her make a customer's sandwich. I smile, remembering the inimitable phrase.

"What's so funny?" she asks. Feigned irritation.

"I'll shake you," I reply. "That was crazy."

A look of confusion. "No," she says. "You said 'shake'."

"Yeah. Shake."

"No! Shake!"

Now I'm confused. We're arguing over the same word. Twilight Zone.

"Right," I say. I spell it out. "S, h, a, k, e."

Her turn to spell. "S, h, a, n, k. I'll shank you!"

Crud. She was threatening to kill me. Not so adorable, maybe.

"Oh," I say. "I knew it. You have been in prison, then."

"Whatever," she replies.

Later, I inspect my sandwich for tiny shards of glass. Tuna probably wasn't the best choice; too easy to hide stuff in there. On the other hand, a few drops of the right substance would be undetectable on a slice of bread. Too late to worry now, I think, chewing my food.

That evening I return to my keyboard with a new sense of purpose. Writing is passé? Hardly. When it really matters, there's just no substitute for the written word. Throughout history, ambiguity and misunderstanding have been avoided—and, no doubt, countless tragedies narrowly averted—because competent grammar and spelling don't permit the sort of miscommunication that makes all the difference between adorable, and something less.

No comments:

Post a Comment