"Come to dinner next Friday at 7," I declared to a young, underfed and overworked law student.
"Sounds fine," he said.
He never came. When asked what happened, he replied, all innocence, "Oh, were you expecting me?"
I quoted him.
"I just meant it sounded fine. But there was no way I could come. I'm studying for a final. I guess we're having a communications problem."
A few weeks later, I called a friend to see if she wanted me to pick her up for the theater. "That's okay," she said.
So I drove to her house. She had already left.
When I finally caught up with her at the theater, I asked why the change of plans. She denied that plans had changed.
"But you said 'That's okay.' "
"Well, I thought you knew that meant 'never mind,' or 'don't worry about it.' " She flashed a smile. "That's okay, we're just having a communications problem."
In neither case were we having a communications problem. He was having a manners problem; she was having a language problem. They now have a relationship problem--with me.
When one person misinforms the other or withholds crucial information, why does the guilt now have to be shared, as in "WE are having a communications problem"?
I admit to a few communications problems myself, but I don't claim they're OUR fault. Take the time my daughter announced on the phone that she was changing jobs and "getting into reincarnation." Or that's what I heard.
After interrogating her about making a living at this vocation, I discovered she had said "getting into carnations." She planned to grow them in California.
There was the incident with the yellow paper at a library. After I handed in a pink slip with information on a book I wanted, the man behind the desk shoved a yellow slip toward me with this penciled message: "Take off this form."
I stared at it. Then, literal mind at work, I picked it up and started off.
"Lady," he called, "where are you going with that paper?"
I thought, I explained, he wanted me to take it. He took a deep, patronizing breath and melodramatically tore off a yellow sheet hidden beneath the pink one.
Without putting too fine a point on it, I suppose in this case, we were having a communications problem. But it's just as well he didn't say so.
In the following situations, we don't have a communications problem, you (he/she) cannot convey a simple message. Or prefer not to.
* You ask me to go to the art gallery (and I wear an old pantsuit and jogging shoes), but neglect to say we are going to a formal reception for the gallery director.
* You tell me you love tomatoes and onions, but explain you like them raw only, just as I am serving chicken marengo.
* You invite me to the St. Patrick's Day parade and confide as we arrive that we're marching in it, and I'm to hold up the other end of a banner that says God knows what in Gaelic.
A valid communications problem, to me, is placing a long-distance call when all circuits are busy. Or having your family believe you when you inform them you'd rather forget your birthdays, and they do.
Until recently I had no defense against we-cannot-communicate accusations. Now I have my weapon, from a computer, of all things.
While at the library, I typed: "I want a book on contibutions [sic] to medicine by National Instiutes [sic] of Healtth [sic]."
After some undeciferable messages, it printed: "Type your search in PLAIN ENGLISH and press the RETURN key." (Computer's emphasis.)
This time I reworded the request and typed more carefully, although I spelled history "hiustory." What difference could a small typo make?
The machine reassured me it was doing its part: "Looking in the index for terms to use in searching the catalogue." Then another message: " 'hiust' not in index."
Feeling a bit frisky, I wrote: "We are having a communicastions sic problem."
The machine blew its stack. "Oncode 0041," it cried, in righteous indignation.
"Transmit condition raised uncorrectable error in output . . . cite error condition 41 . . . cite error condition 1003 . . . further output prevented by prior condition . . . cite error condition 1003 . . . cite error condition 1003 . . . further output prevented by prior condition . . . cite error . . . " in endless repetition until almost 11 yards of printout billowed over the machine.
I pushed Stop Print, then Clear Display, Reset, even HELP, but nothing would stop its rage. It took the woman from the information desk to put an end to the computer's fury. She shut it down.
"I don't think," she shook her head sadly, "this is a happy machine."
For the first time in my life I was empathizing with a computer. "It was my fault," I said silently. (I knew it could read my thoughts--like E.T.) "And I know just how you feel. Forgive me."
I tore off the 33 feet of screaming message and took it home to reread. It was a revelation. The computer had armed me for the future.
The next time anybody throws me a "we-are-having-a-communications-problem" line, I'm going to start screeching: "Cite error condition 1003 . . . transmit condition raised uncorrectable error in output . . . cite error condition 1003 . . . cite error condition 1003" and go on screaming for 11 yards.
Or until somebody shuts me down.