Wednesday, December 5, 2012


For the past several years I've been getting my hair cut every six to eight weeks or so by a very nice Ethiopian woman. The challenge is to somehow dissimulate my growing bald spot without making it too obvious, and she does this well. I seldom have to wait, and the shampoo, haircut and conversation run me twenty dollars, which in these days of $400 jeans and $90 tank tops is a pretty good bargain. For a few days I can forget that the top of my head is slowly getting more naked, shiny, and prey to the elements.

In the time that I've known her, Beylanesh has dated, married and become the mother or a gorgeous baby boy. Now she is divorced, having declared her ex-husband a good-for-nothing never-do-well. She is charming and petite, has a wonderful smile and likes to talk. Today, I realized for the first time that I never have had a good grasp of what she's talking about, and vice versa. Part of it is accents, part of it is culture, but a major reason for our lack of tangible process with the spoken word is that we have agreed to miscommunicate. It's easier that way.

During our first few encounters, we spent the better part of the twenty or so minutes she works on me saying, "What?", "Excuse me?" or, "Sorry, I didn't get that." It took three sessions under her scissors  for me to understand that Ethiopian women often have names ending in 'nesh,' which means 'you are.' I love knowledge like that. Beylanesh, for her part, learned that I sell used cars. I don’t, and how she got to that knowledge is beyond my understanding, but I've grown comfortable with it. She asks how business is and I say it's not doing well. She nods and between snips comments, "It's the weather, the economy. Afghans are not buying camels in the summer months. Starbucks hot chocolate. Ronald Reagan." Or at least that's what I think she said. Today, she also told me that her mother barbecued the couch.

Our misunderstandings are safe. Beylanesh probably goes home to her son and her mother and tells them I tried to sell her a camel. Nothing will come of this, and it will affect neither of our lives. But what is it about communicating that has become so complicated and error prone?

Just recently, a friend and I exchanged a phone call after a long silence, and both of us realized we had misinterpreted an earlier conversation, and that the misunderstanding had caused consternation and sadness. We made amends and we made peace, but some of the harm lingers. Did my friend really say that? And what, exactly, was meant by that choice of words?

Something like 80 percent of communications is non-verbal, which explains all the misunderstandings originating with emails and phone calls. We rely on body language, eye cast, the furrow of a brow or the set of a jaw to understand what is really being said to us, and while the friends whom I love deeply will know what is going on in my world without a need for words, most communications remain haphazard, as likely to fail as not. It's the nature of the beast. Words--unlike numbers that are set and definitive--at best convey only a semblance of what we are trying to put forth; they're often more enemy than friend, and I very much doubt any two people in the world speak exactly the same language. On occasion, I find a word in French will come closest to what I want to say, but if I'm talking to an English-speaker, this won't help much. It works the other way if I am in Europe.

So what are we to do... Silence is an option I exercise on occasion; in the past I used to travel from home and made it a point not to talk for several days. It was restful and regenerating. Not communicating on purpose has its advantages: you can't be misinterpreted if you have nothing to say. Or perhaps you can. As always, there are contradicting thoughts. Confucius called silence the true friend that never betrays. A few hundred years later, Francis Bacon said silence was the virtue of fools. Personally, I like Mark Twain best: It's better to keep my mouth closed and let people think I am a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.