Friday, January 4, 2013

Did You Hear What I Said?

I heard something and it was probably what you said, but I can't guarantee it was what you meant.  When you spoke to me just now, your words passed through my filter of personal associations, feelings, and experiences.   Not only do we all see things that other people don't see, but we also "hear" things that other people don't say.

In my first marital breakup, this conversation occurred:

Me:  "You said you'd take care of me."
Him:  "I thought you meant sexually."

If I'm speaking English as a second language, then your words also pass through the filters of understandable and expected phonemes and morphemes.  North Americans might be familiar with the expression "bus loop."  This is the area where a bus turns around, but is often an area where buses converge from different parts of the city.  A friend of mine, Gijs from Leiden, Holland, was in Vancouver visiting friends.  I was in North Burnaby and he was down near Kitsilano.  His English was quite good.  When he phoned, I told him to get on any bus and ask how to get to the Kootenay Loop.  I would meet him there.  I told him that all the bus drivers would know how he could transfer to the Kootenay Loop.

Yes fine, he said.  No problem.  I said Kootenay Loop, but that wasn't what he heard.  When he got on a bus, he asked to be taken to the Kookety Koo.  When the bus driver looked confused, he tried Koodely Doo, and Kootchety Koo, growing increasingly embarrassed and frustrated.  Luckily, he found a bus driver who figured out what he was saying.

In this wonderful poem, Troy Jollimore shines a little light on the fuzzy interface between perception and experience:

Lake Scugog

Where what I see comes to rest,
at the edge of the lake,
against what I think I see

and, up on the bank, who I am
maintains an uneasy truce
with who I fear I am,

while in the cabin's shade the gap between
the words I said
and those I remember saying

is just wide enough to contain
the remains that remain
of what I assumed I knew.

Out in the canoe, the person I thought you were
gingerly trades spots
with the person you are

and what I believe I believe
sits uncomfortably next to
what I believe.

When I promised I will always give you
what I want you to want,
you heard, or desired to hear,

something else.  As, over and in the lake,
the cormorant and its image
traced paths through the sky
             The New Yorker, July 27, 2009

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