Returning home once from a flying lesson, my wife asked me what I had worked on that day. I excitedly told her that I worked on “missed landings,” and that I “went missed” three times in one day!
She seemed puzzled, and said something to the effect that, yes, it was foggy that day, but her brow remained crinkled. When I asked her what was wrong, she timidly said that it seemed dangerous to be landing an airplane in such misty conditions. It took me a few seconds before I realized that she heard my saying “missed landings” as “mist landings,” and that I “went mist” three times!
I wished I had really meant to say that I “went mist,” because it was clearly more poetic, but while I often get overly poetic in my prose, I rarely speak that way intentionally. It was, simply, another mist-understanding, and all I felt was amused and some shame at being done in by a homonym. It wasn’t uncommon for my wife and I to be speaking different languages to each other, and this particular mist-communication (stop it already) was delightfully benign, but many, if not most, misunderstandings have toxic outcomes.
I suffer from an over-attachment to the literal. I can’t honestly say that such a problem arises out of some scholarly or writerly perfectionism in which –as commandants of writing camps are wont to repeat—there is only one word that is ever precisely correct for each situation. It is, rather, possibly a biologically driven manner of thinking (he said frustrated by his own lapse into dualism), a way of perceiving the world that many have attributed to gender differences. While I have many feminine characteristics, when it comes to following a set of instructions, alphabetizing my record collections (I still have them), constructing a chair or deconstructing an argument, I am hopelessly male in my tendencies.
The chief problem (of many) in stereotypical maleness is that one about forests and trees. I may be able to tell you all about the tree in front of me, but sometimes I am clueless about what forest I am in, or even realizing that I am in one. This can turn mundane conversation into both silly and profound argument. The silly end of the spectrum is exemplified by the misunderstanding that occurred some months back when I was scolded for (after all these years) mixing up the long forks and the short ones in the silverware drawer. How can I be wrong? I stood them on end, and put the longer ones in one bin and the shorter ones in the other. NO! “Longer,” as any civilized spouse will know, refers to the length of the tines, and not the entire body of the fork.
On the deeper end, accusations can go flying when one person insists he or she said one thing and the other insists it was another thing, or no such thing at all, and the consequences are severe. When you asked me if I would like to pick up our child after soccer practice and I said I would and then you assumed that meant that I would actually pick up our child rather than that I simply would like to but instead had to be at the office for a meeting so the child was left abandoned and feeling entirely unloved—that sort of thing. (This actually never happened, but that is generally how it goes.)
John Gray’s “Men are from Mars…”, according to Harper Collins, is the largest selling hardcover book of nonfiction in history, spending over 2 years on the best-seller list. It sells so well that Gray’s “Ph.D.” still adorns the cover of the book despite having been received from a non-accredited correspondence school (i.e., diploma mill). His work was loosely based on the research of the very legitimate psycholinguist Deborah Tannen. I have never read “Men are from Mars…” although I started it but couldn’t get past the first few paragraphs. (If there’s two things I can’t stand, it’s pop psychology books and seeing white men dance– even though I wrote one myself and on occasion have been seen dancing.)
But I have read two of Deborah Tannen’s books, which to some degree bridges the pop and “legit” genres. She asserts, among many other things, that men typically engage in conversation for different functions than do women. Men engage primarily to discover their current status in the power hierarchy and/or to learn what activity they are being required to do at the moment. Women, generally speaking of course, engage in conversation primarily to serve the function of a shared emotional experience. These are certainly broad generalities, but I have found them helpful, nevertheless, in sorting through the mist.
I have learned, mostly through my work as a therapist and the much more difficult work of being a spouse, how to converse like a girl. It’s still a bit like throwing a ball with my left hand, but it helps to remind myself before engaging in a conversation that the purpose of the conversation is not to learn what I have to do or where I stand but rather to have a shared emotional experience. It can be rewarding, like reading a good book or going to the theater, but sometimes I become mystified (mistified?) and have to work my way out of the farrago by rewinding the words I heard and struggle to find their hidden meaning.
I suppose my testosterone rises and suddenly the forest transforms to a collection of disparate trees and I feel like a lost child wondering if his parents will ever pick him up from soccer practice.
In the end, there may be little difference between missed communications and mist communications. In an airplane, pilots “go missed” when there’s just too much mist to see the runway, which may or may not be beneath them. It’s just safer to miss an approach than it is try one’s luck at a mist approach. Did you get that, or did you go mist?