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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Interpreting social cues

A while back there was a popular programme on the telly. It was called "A very peculiar practice." The main theme, for me at least, was the inability of the main character to decipher what was going on under his nose.

When I speak to someone for the first time, I inevitably ensure that I am at my most polite. Polite, the British version, differs from other cultures. More often than not, in America of all places, this is not a helpful mode of communication.

My son plagues me, “is it nine?”
“Look at the timer dear, 19 minutes to go.”
“It is a rule?”
“Yes, it’s rude to telephone people before 9 at the weekend, it’s a rule.” He searches my face for a hint of deception.

The key to conducting a successful telephone conversation, is the ability to tune into the timbre of the other person. I prefer to talk to someone face to face, as I am a visual learner and need those cues. Without them, I need to listen very carefully and adjust my tone. My own telephone skills are poor which means that I am sympathetic to the difficulties that others experience.

I tap out the numbers as my son waits close by nibbling his finger tips with his eyes squeezed shut.

I hear a cheery voice and make introductions. It’s the Dad, a jolly straightforward American. This is going to be easy. We exchange a few pleasantries. He hands me over to the Mum. I remember that play dates are Mums’ department. I make introductions again, just to clarify.

“Yeah. I know,” she replies in a halting, jittery tone. Perhaps she’s busy. Maybe this is the wrong time?
“I’m sorry to disturb you so early on a Saturday morning, I hope this isn’t an inconvenient time?”
There is a pause. Maybe she’s adjusting the volume, or running away from her children to conduct a conversation in peace and quiet, or she’s tucking the receiver into her shoulder so that her hands are free?
“Early? It’s nine o’clock!” I’m not sure if I’ve just insulted her? Nine o’clock may not be early? Perhaps I’ve implied that she lies around in bed all day, whereas she’s been up since first light?
“Sorry, I just wasn’t sure this was convenient?”
“Yes…..I just ….. perhaps this might not be a good time,…..perhaps?”
“Good time?” I begin to wonder if I inadvertently slipped into speaking Swahili.

“I just wondered if he’d like to come over for a play date, although I understand that you might have other plans.”
“Who told you we had other plans?” she snaps back as quick as a whippet
“Um, no-one, er…….it’s just that it’s such short notice I didn’t like to assume that he’d be available.”
“Er available to come and play.”
“Are you gonna be home?”
“Yes…..of course.”
Of course! Just in time I remember that quirk a few Americans have, a preference for child care by a woman rather than a Dad. It’s a preference that I don’t fully understand, but I’ve come across it before.
“Well sure,” she croons slowly and softly. It’s not a Southern drawl, not an accent, more of a reluctant and uncertain acceptance.
“Shall I give you our address?” Another pause follows. I imagine her moving to find a paper and pencil.
“Well I don’t know where you live!” Pause. “I’ll go get a pen.”

I wait in a state of nervous confusion. I take care with my address details. I don’t do it the American way. The American way is to provide detailed instructions, turns to right and left, number of stop lights or blocks, helpful landmarks on route until finally, if you’re really lucky, eventually, they give you the number of the house and the name of the street. Brits give the address first. They use similar navigational hints, afterwards, if necessary. Left at the Frog and Toad, right at the Queen’s Arms, straight past the King’s Head, sharp right at The Two Trees. This isn’t possible in America, as there is no such thing as a pub.
“It’s 14799 C-h-a-r-m-i-n-g-t-o-n L-a-n-e.” I wait in silence, as if I say anything I might cause confusion.
“Can he bring anything?”
“No, just his sweet self will do nicely.” Maybe that didn’t come out quite right? I can see him in my mind’s eye, soft spoken, rounded shoulders upon a slightly curved spine, shy eyes behind thick glasses and a bewitching smile.
“My son……he’s a boy you know!” Oh dear! It did come out wrongly.
“Yes, yes of course, I’m sorry, it’s just that……well, you know, he’s such a lovely child.” I don’t know what I’m saying any more, I should just shut up.
“A boy!” Her tone is emphatic which is odd because I don’t believe I’m arguing.
“A great chap.” Why didn’t I say guy! I resolve to try harder with the ‘boy thing’ in America.
“How about 1? Would that suit you?”
“Sure………thanks so much.” I hear a click at the other end of the line. I am off the hook.

I give my fizzing child a synopsis of the good news, set the timer for 4 hours ahead and pour myself a vat of coffee.

After more than twelve years in this country, I still have a great deal to learn and no teacher.

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