Sometimes I feel bombarded by clouds of confusion that masquerade as communication. It happens on those morning talk shows where co-hosts engage each other or guests in trivialities with increasing volume. One speaks, the other interrupts to shift the focus, two or more people talking past each other. Sound bullets fly randomly through the airwaves, striking unknown listener targets.
I recall a live fire exercise during my army basic training. Walking through a field with loaded M-1 rifles (I know, I’m an old guy!) we were to fire at pop up targets when they appeared. On one occasion a guy behind me fired without a clear view of the target. I actually heard the bullet whiz past my helmet. The training sergeant chewed him out and a moment of confusion became an occasion for clarification.
Sometimes our words are like that bullet, flying right past someone’s ear. Words aimed for effect, not connection. Sound bytes rather than discourse. One-up-manship. Nobody listening. Nobody framing fresh insights from cognitive clarity. Perhaps this is the new normal for conversation. We talk past each other. We listen only to ourselves and our own thoughts. We trade words and miss relationships.
For several years my wife and I have enjoyed Saturday breakfast at a local fast food restaurant. We take our newspaper and read it while we eat. Recent renovations resulted in digital kiosks where the staff prefers customers place their orders. I tried it once, but found I still had to get in line at the counter to pay with cash. So, I still go to the counter to place my order.
One Saturday when I stepped up it felt like the clerk dismissed my words. She pointed to the kiosk. “You can order over there.”
I replied, “Actually, I’d rather…”
“I can show you how to use it.”
I began to explain why I preferred ordering at the counter. Mid-sentence she broke in, “It will take your card.”
“I understand that, but….”
Impatiently she interrupted again. “It’ll take your debit card.”
Now I was the one getting impatient. “Look, I just want to place my order here.”
With an exasperated expression she said, “So, what do you want?”
She entered my order in the computer. I handed her the cash, and she gave me my receipt and a placard with a number on it. “Put this on the table. We’ll bring it to you.”
I went to the table and began reading the newspaper. In the background I heard various numbers called as they brought orders out. Suddenly I realized we should have been served by now, so I went back to the counter.
“Excuse me, can you check on my order?”
With a blank expression and flat tone she said, “You’ll have to get in line, Sir.”
I dutifully worked my way back up to the counter and handed her my receipt. She took it, disappeared for several minutes, then returned. “Your order was served.”
“I’m sorry, but it wasn’t.”
With a sigh, “They brought it out and called your number, but you didn’t respond. They thought you’d left.”
“Perhaps I didn’t hear it then, but the placard was on the table in plain…”
“Your order was served,” she said, looking past me to the next customer.’
“May I speak to your manager?”
She abruptly left the register and returned saying, “What did you order? We’ll do it over.”
I told her and she replaced the order, got it filled and handed it to me on a tray. When I got to the table my wife noticed one of her items was missing. Reluctantly I returned to the clerk who was methodically directing customers to the kiosks. She gave me a bored look, then went and got the item. As I took it back to the table another server approached, handing me a tray with the same thing.”
I smiled and pointed to my tray. “Thanks, but we have everything now.”
Looking past me she said, “This is yours.”
“But I already have my order.”
“We owe you this because you didn’t get your order.”
And so it went.
Sometimes I find a lot of conversations going this way. It’s like we’ve become a computer-programmed population of people who no longer connect brain with tongue. We rattle off our word bullets randomly, primed by programmed responses, never connecting. Then I wonder, is anybody really listening? Do we ever really hear each other?
Perhaps the problem is that we’ve allowed ourselves to be programmed into the stratosphere of digital responses. Desensitized, we’ve become lost in clouds of confusion. I wish sarge was here…maybe he could restore some clarity.