Miscommunication: Two Tales

My mother recently had a major surgery, and a nurse has been visiting once a day to check on her condition.  Esther is a homey, comfortable young woman, very friendly and solicitous.  Yesterday was her second visit.  She concluded it with list of questions, most pertaining to my mother’s bodily fluids. Then she asked:

“What is your name?”

My mother looked a little surprised that Esther had forgotten so soon, but masked it politely.  She gave her first and last name and began to spell it, voice thin and reedy from the effort of speech.

Esther cut her off.  “That’s fine.  What is the date?”

“The 11th.”

Esther gave her an expectant stare.  “What month?”

My mother returned the stare. “…March.”

“The year?”

Mom looked concerned.  “2012.”

At this point I became aware that the point of Ester’s questions were to check on Mom’s long-term memory.  Mom, however, had not realized this, which became clear with Ester’s final test:

“Who is the Vice President?”

Mom gaped, baffled as to why the questionarre had turned to matters of politics.  The two stared at each other with growing concern, each clearly harboring doubts as to the other’s mental functioning.  The silence stretched long enough Esther became uncomfortable.

“I know, it’s a little tricky, I like to trip people up– They know the President, not the Vice President, right? But it’s okay, it’s okay, you can just tell me the President…”

“Biden!” Mom burst out, “Biden.  I didn’t realize– I thought you were having a stroke!”


When I was young, I was very shy of talking to strangers.  Phone conversations in particular were a dreaded chore.  Here’s one I had when I was 9:

The phone rang, and with some trepidation I removed the phone from its cradle. “Hello?” I whispered.

“Hello? Hello?” responded the caller.

“Hello?” I ventured again, a little bit louder.

“Hello!” the caller replied, and launched into a telemarketing shpeil.  My nerves a little shaken, I couldn’t quite keep up.

“Wait… What…” I mumbled.

The shpeil halted. “Hello?” my caller asked once more.  “Hello?”

Thoroughly embarrassed, I spoke at an even lower volume. “I… can you… you… what?”

“Do you speak English?” demanded my caller.

My stunned and confused silence seemed to confirm her worst fears.

“No. Speak. English?” she repeated.

Panicked, I interpreted her question as a statement.  “You don’t speak English?” I shouted, my voice shrill.

How was I going to get through this conversation if my conversational partner didn’t even speak my language?  And why had she called my house?  What was I going to do?

The telemarketer cut through my frantic interior monologue.  “Let me speak to your mother,” she said soothingly.

And she did.


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