Article Date: 9/1/2007

lessons learned


Here's what happens when we expect others to make themselves understood.


Many years ago an Italian boxer, Primo Carnera, came to this country to train for a boxing match for the world heavyweight championship. "I can't tell him nothin' straight," complained the Brooklyn trainer assigned to him. "All he can speak is Eye-talion, French and Spanish. It's a shame he ain't smart enough to speak English!

"Another example of the difficulty in communicating with people of different nationalities. It also illustrates the unfortunate tendency we have to expect the other person to make themselves understood, rather than taking the responsibility ourselves.

A glass of vin

As you'll remember (if you were paying attention) last month I mentioned I had taken French in high school many moons ago, and thus got a little too cocky about my ability to communicate on a trip to the SILMO optical trade show in Paris. I knew that the French word for wine was "vin," so I decided to order a glass at the restaurant our first night, in order to demonstrate my suave cosmopolitan nature. The only problem was that I, evidently, didn't know the French word for "glass," and what I got was a large pitcher of "vin," rather than a glass.

This presented a few problems. First, it was very good! Secondly, I was raised during the depression of the 1930s, with the constant admonition from my mother, "Clean your plate! The poor starving children in India would love to have what you have left on your plate and in your glass!" Although to be perfectly honest, my teetotaling mother undoubtedly had milk rather than wine in mind.


The third problem is best illustrated by the story of the judge who asked the drunk, "How did you get in this deplorable condition?"

"Wasn't my fault," he answered. "It was bad company. There were four of us with a quart of whiskey, and the other three don't drink."

I had the same problem because my wife didn't drink. Even so, the entire contents of the pitcher had somehow disappeared by the conclusion of the meal, and I vaguely recall floating happily back to the hotel.

Other problems

Even when a person speaks another language fluently, it's often difficult to communicate due to a lack of understanding the common usage and idioms of the other language.

"Thank you for your precious help," read an e-mail I received from an employee of Essilor in France, in response to a tribute I had written about Professor Maitenaz, the inventor of the Varilux lens. Now, I've been called a lot of things during my long existence here on earth, but never before had I ever been labeled "precious." I finally figured that what she meant was "valuable," which is one of the definitions of the word "precious."

And on a trip to Israel, an Israeli who was fluent in English in describing an incident told me, "As you Americans say, 'You can catch two birds with a stone.'"

Bon appétit

Language confusion may cause poor communication, but is also humorous at times. My friend Billy McWilliams was in France for the first time. As he was seated in a restaurant, he heard the waiter say, "Bon appétit." Thinking the waiter was giving his name, my friend replied, "McWilliams."

"You've embarrassed me again," his wife remonstrated. "Bon appétit means 'enjoy your meal.'" So as they left the restaurant, he pointed to his stomach and said to the waiter, "Bon appétit."

"McWilliams," answered the waiter. OM


Optometric Management, Issue: September 2007