Communication is a miraculous human achievement that’s far more difficult, challenging and error prone than is commonly appreciated. Here’s a small example of what I mean…
I went to get a new license tag one day, partly as a way to take a break from my tightly absorbing freelance writing project. I started having trouble peering through the fluffy clouds that were increasingly blocking my view of what I needed to say. They were floating aimlessly, and in no apparent hurry, inside my head, along with some dimly jumbled sentences I couldn’t quite get a handle on. Outside, the sun was shining—inexhaustible, bright and inviting…
I arrived at the Vehicle Registration office door and read a bold red and white sign shouting that my proof of insurance will be required. I looked at the form in my hand and for the first time started reading the fine print. Sure enough, it said I needed to bring my proof of insurance with me to get a new sticker.
Alright, I thought, lucky thing I decided to come down in person or I might have mailed in my payment without including proof of insurance and wasted a complete cycle of work only to have to repeat it again, the second time with all the proper papers.
In the course of mailing, I might have read the form more carefully and noticed the additional requirement, yet maybe not. So much depends on attitude, state of mind, fatigue, the vagaries of mood and the urgency of seemingly random items ‘preoccupying’ our attention and consuming our energy. At any rate, leaving my place in line which was dead last anyway, a quick dash to my car’s glove box and I have proof of insurance in hand.
After a fairly brief wait I’m standing at the counter, where I ask if I can pay by credit card, to which I receive a very cogent answer. “Yes, but we charge 3%.” I respond “what about a debit card?” to which she replies “That’s 75 cents.”
Okay, now if I’ve got this straight she’s saying that using a credit card will cost me 3% and using a debit card will cost me 75 cents. Alright, 3%, on what amount? What’s the fee for these tabs again? I think it’s about $75. Okay so, 3% of one dollar is 3 cents, then 3% of $75 is 3 times 75, that’s… Wait a minute, before I actually get to do the simple math, I’ve got an urgent incoming message blaring from my memory banks.
My memories have just informed me that dozens of times, maybe hundreds of times in the past, when I assumed I had correctly understood a quick, initial communication, believing it was correctly structured and that I was interpreting it correctly, I was wrong. Hold it… another incoming message on the heels of the first one says the repercussions of acting on miscommunications can be severe, so be careful not to do this. My memories don’t always patiently take the immediate situation into consideration, sometimes they just broadcast whatever lessons they happen to be carrying and drop them in my lap…
Alright, so maybe the best thing for me to do now is to throw out another question to verify that I’ve understood what was said to me correctly and that it was stated accurately. So I ask, “so there’s a charge either way?” to which I receive a kindly-natured “what am I speaking a foreign language, I just said it’s 3% for a credit card and 75 cents for a debit card.” Aha! So I had it right the first time. Good.
Okay, now I have to come back with a line to continue a relatively graceful and effective conversation with the attractive woman behind the counter so I ask “what’s 3% of 75 dollars?” rather than multiplying it in my head. Why? Because it’s not so much that I need the answer as that I need to smooth communications and bring this transaction to a quick and successful conclusion. The mental fatigue that drove me out of the house in the first place also insists on reminding me, right at this moment, that I’m overtired.
She says “it’s almost 2 dollars.” Well, 3 times 75 is 225 so that’s over two dollars. So I say, “so a debit card is less” and hand her my debit card. She says “yes”, takes the card and completes the transaction. The actual fee was only $70 but 3% of that is still more than 2 dollars, so neither of us are particularly crisp with our numbers at the moment.
She suggested I put the new sticker on my car within the next couple of days and I offered “you never asked me for proof of insurance” to which she quickly announced “oh, that car is insured.” “You can tell that…” I mused. “Yes, pretty good, huh?”, she followed. “Very sophisticated” I admitted, remembering the red sign with white letters that commanded me to my car’s glove box just a short while earlier.
With people in line behind me, I don’t feel I have time to even find out if she’s married, and her hands are blocked from view behind the high counter so I smile and leave.
So we have relevant inner, unspoken interests and priorities, relevant outer spoken communications with their varying degrees of accuracy, and lots of irrelevant reflections, memories and side-impulses buffeting us as we scan tone of voice, facial expression, body language, strategically posted signs and instructions, physical and energetic attractiveness, interpersonal chemistry, the chance for humor, how many people are waiting on line, and what’s appropriate to say in public where others will overhear, in a government office, to someone being paid to act in a professional manner, and all the while looking to meet a woman I can develop a relationship with… Simple, right?
You still remember the title of this little post?