Friday, September 02, 2011

Word pictures

I will never grow old as long as iTunes is around. This week, they just announced the pre-release of "The Beatles 1," a collection of each of their number 1 chart hits – the last of which was released over 40 years ago.

So what do the Beatles sound like to me? Of course, they sound like Buffalo, New York. Because as I was growing up in 1960s Buffalo, the Beatles and top 40 radio were the soundtrack to my life. So for me, the Beatles will always sound like my parents' Oldsmobile station wagon, football practice at Ellicott Creek Park, fish fry on Fridays from Brownraut's, Catholic school, and my first ride on a Boeing 707.

And Elvis Presley? Why, he sounds like China. When I took a sabbatical from my software job in the 1980s and taught at a Chinese university, soon after that country opened up to the West, my colleagues at Tianjin University taped my lectures – and tried to make me feel "at home" by playing elevator pop music beforehand. So one morning I popped out their tape, put in my own cassette of Heartbreak Hotel, and proceeded to teach them some American musical culture – explaining who Elvis was, and how he sang about things like going to a very bad hotel when your girl left you, gyrating my hips instructionally as everyone roared with laughter.

Of course, your Beatles and your Elvis are probably very different from mine. And that is the point. Words paint very different pictures for each of us. And we often get into trouble when we assume that our picture is the only possible one.

For example, when you say "productivity," your word picture might be one of helping people do their very best. My word picture might be of a slavedriver who burns people out. My view of "success" might be liberating, and your view of "success" might seem like a straightjacket of other people's expectations. Just because I am an adult, and like to read books, doesn't mean that I would want to visit an adult bookstore.

Of course, things get even worse when you turn to politics. I was a real American last time I checked my passport, but calling myself one would move my needle pretty far to the right. I might like the sound of being a non-conformist, but showing up in a gathering of them in my best suit – which certainly wouldn't conform – might not have the desired effect. Being in favor of speaking English can mean totally different things to your English teacher and the folks on the Arizona border. And, of course, when I grew up during the Cold War, living on a commune might have been fine, but being a aficionado of commune values – e.g. a commun-ist – often was not.

So how do you get around this problem? Discover what pictures the other person sees from your words. Take a genuine interest in how they see the world. Learn from them, rather than trying to "enlighten" them, and you will probably both be enlightened.

In the case of Elvis, my hosts eagerly wanted a copy of my music – which I agreed to, as long as they gave me a copy of their favorite music in return. What I got was a Chinese opera that was so sweet and poignant that it still brings a lump to my throat. And to this day, I still try to hear everyone else's music.

No comments: