Article Date: 10/1/2002

lessons learned
What You Say And What They Hear
Amusing accounts of how the meaning and order of words get mixed up.
Jack Runniger, O.D.

Throughout the course of history, we've been able to judge the character and intestinal fortitude of various naval officers by their declarations during the stress of battle:

"I have not yet begun to fight," declared Captain John Paul Jones in reply to a British demand to surrender during the Revolutionary War.

"Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead," proclaimed Admiral David Farragut during the Civil War battle of Mobile Bay.

"I'm scared! I wish I was home," whined Ensign Jack Runninger during the World War II battle of Iwo Jima.

Who said what?

However, my resultant inferiority complex was helped somewhat on a recent trip to L.A. (Lower Alabama) at a museum devoted to the battle of Mobile Bay. There I learned that Farragut may really not have come up with the spur of the moment bravado for which he has become famous.

It seems the "Damn the torpedoes" quote didn't appear until a month after the battle. Reportedly, during the battle, it was not Farragut but the captain of the Tecumseh who said, "Damn the torpedoes. We have to get that boat!" referring to an enemy ship. But the Tecumseh was hit and sank, so its skipper's remark didn't make nearly as inspiring a story.

So perhaps Farragut had a good public relations agent retroactively refine the Tecumseh captain's rhetoric into the now famous slogan and credit it to Farragut.


Interpreting the phrase

However, if the quote is accurate, what was Farragut really saying? Some wags have come up with different interpretations of what he might have meant. They point out that merely by changing the punctuation, the meaning can be changed to something less heroic:

"Damn! The torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" suggests a possible attempt to escape battle rather than seek it. And more recent visitors to Mobile Bay during the height of the summer season maintain that what Farragut probably said was, "Damn the mosquitoes. Full speed ahead."

All of this is a great illustration of how statements can be interpreted many ways. And that's a problem in communicating with patients. You think you're transmitting one message but your patient hears an entirely different one.

The Chevy "won't go"

Even more communication problems arise today because of the influx of patients who grow up speaking a different language. This often causes more difficulty in their correctly interpreting what you say.

For example, a few years ago, General Motors had difficulty selling one of their Chevrolet models in Latin American countries. The Chevy Nova had sold well in this country, so officials couldn't figure out why it didn't do well in Central and South America -- until someone pointed out that "no va" in Spanish means, "won't go."

They'll tell

The problem with such miscommunication is that you usually don't realize that a patient has misunderstood you. As a result, they may damage your reputation by conveying unfavorable information about you. Like the Floridian in the service business who wrote on a comment sheet at a St. Petersburg museum, "What's the difference between a Canadian and a canoe? A canoe will tip!"



Optometric Management, Issue: October 2002