For someone who makes a sizeable portion of his income from technical writing (there are years when my tech writing revenue matches my consulting revenue), you’d think I’d be better at communicating. As I get older and deafer, most of my problems arise when listening to people—especially people with accents (I, of course, have no accent).

For instance, I was in England teaching for Learning Tree International a month or two ago. Coincidentally, my son was coming to London on a school trip and we would be able to get together for dinner (with the rest of his group) on his first night in town. He sent me the name of the restaurant the group was going to and, since I had a class full of experts on London, I asked my class what kind of restaurant it was. “Oh,” replied one lady, “it’s a good place. It’s a nudie restaurant.”

<significant pause on my part> “Pardon?” I squeaked. “It’s a noodle restaurant,” she repeated. I started to breathe again. Part of the problem is that since I live in a small town

in North America, I’m just not exposed to a variety of accents. We seem to pick up our phonemes (the limited range of sounds that our language uses vs. the wider range of sounds available to all languages) very early in life—and it’s darn hard to say or even to hear other phonemes without lots of exposure. So, when I travel, I spend a lot of time hoping that I’m getting the other person’s message.

Lately, when I’m having trouble understanding people I go into “grinning moron” mode: I smile and nod encouragingly while my brain runs around shouting “What does this mean! What does this mean!” I look, basically, like the world’s biggest bobble-head doll. At random intervals, I have a spasm and repeat back to the speaker some word or phrase that shows that I’m taking it all in.

I’m not taking it all in. A recent incident of grinning moron mode was at a Kaiseki restaurant that my wife and I like very much. The chef’s wife delivers the food and always takes the time to explain what you’re getting (there’s no menu—you eat what the chef cooks). If you thought I had a problem with speakers from the UK who share most of their phonemes with me, you can imagine how I deal with people whose language has less “sound overlap” with my language. This sophisticated lady was explaining the dressing that went on this part of the meal, that the dressing included walnuts and was an “ah-dum” sauce. I had a spasm and, still grinning, repeated “ah-dum sauce” back to her as a gesture of cross-cultural understanding. In return, I got a peculiar look before she left us to enjoy the meal. I get a lot of peculiar looks when in grinning moron mode. However, this one looked like she was concerned not just for my intelligence but for my sanity. My wife leaned over the table to me and said, “Autumn, you idiot—it’s an autumn sauce!” We didn’t go back for six months and, even then, took a friend for camouflage.

The problem is that I’m no help in these kinds of miscommunications. Last week I was checking out of the parking lot at the airport where I leave my car when I travel. I do this often enough that I’m on a first-name basis with most of the cashiers. There was a new woman on the cash register who only got a quick look at my license plate as I drove up to the booth (my license plate says PHANDV, the name of my company). She figured that it would be easy to confirm my plate number with me before writing it down. She obviously had no idea who she was dealing with.

The question I heard was, “What’s the fifth letter of your license number: O O D?” I looked blank. Brave soul, she tried again: “The fifth letter of your license plate: Is it O O D?” Silence.

Suddenly, I realized that she was asking if the fifth letter was “O or D.” I then gave what must rank as the most useless answer in the world: “Ohhh… D.” Think about it from her point of view. Fortunately, this time I realized what the problem was and said, “D… The fifth letter is D.” She filled out the form and I went on my way. I won’t tell you how the person waiting behind me (at 2:00 in the morning) felt about this.

However, it got me thinking about the work that I do as an application developer (it’s a 2.5-hour drive home— I think a lot). I tried thinking about my work differently, just for today. Instead of thinking of it as programming, or building applications, or delivering functionality, just for the heck of it, I tried thinking of it as communication. How well do I communicate the information that the user is looking for? How well do I communicate how the user should interact with my application? What part of this happens in my user interface? What part happens in the Help system? Or the user manual? Or in training?

It was an interesting experience and one with an interesting result, which I’ll discuss next issue.

About Peter Vogel

After 10 years of editing Smart Access, Peter continues to develop with Access (though he also does a lot of .NET stuff). Peter is also still editing other people's article--he even self-published a book on writing user manuals ("rtfm*") with a blog here.
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