Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Jan. 9, 2009

Manners of speaking

For the past 10 years or so around New Year's Day, we head over to husband Art's cousin's place for a mini-family get-together. After we catch up on each other's news, his cousin Kris serves a buffet-style meal and then everyone settles down for an evening of talk. Invariably, the discussion becomes the telling and re-telling of family stories about three of the more colorful characters in Art's mother's family, mingled with much laughing and joking.

But this year was different. Sometime early in the evening, the talk turned to how easy it is to misjudge someone or to miscommunicate with them. Art told a story about when he was in college and worked for the railroad during the summers to make money for school. It was about a Jewish fellow who ran a fruit distributorship. Frank was a fellow Art knew slightly because his grandfather and father had worked for or with Frank over the years.

One day, the train bringing Frank's fruit cars was late and Frank was calling every few minutes to find out where his cars were. Art was doing the best he could to assure Frank that they would be brought as soon as the train arrived.

But when one call from Frank came in, Fred, the station agent who was Art's boss and whom Art knew to be quite foul-mouthed, took the phone from Art and used several ethnic slurs to tell Frank the same things Art had said.

Art said he was stunned and wondered whether the railroad would be sued.

Later that day, Frank and his wife were at the station to pick up their daughter from the train. As they were about to leave, Frank spotted Fred. Art said his immediate thought was how awkward - or worse - this situation might be.

Instead, Frank came over, shook Fred's hand and introduced his family.

Art said he was somewhere between amazed and befuddled and couldn't wait to get off work that evening to tell his Dad about the whole episode.

But when he did, his Dad just smiled and said, "You don't understand. There are many Jewish fellows in the fruit and produce business around here and that is how they talk to one another." Art's Dad said Frank wasn't offended by Fred's language and, in fact, considered Fred to be acting like "one of the boys."

Soon other family members at our gathering joined in with their own stories. Usually the evening breaks down into those who tell the stories and those who listen. Art, his mother Donna, his cousins Jeff and Kris and his brother Tommy are among the story tellers. Jeff's wife Lorraine, his mother-in-law Alice and I are some of the listeners.

But during the evening, someone asked Lorraine about her experiences as a nun. She had begun her training at age 13, influenced by an uncle who was a priest. She left when she was 32 after she became convinced the order she had chosen was more about providing a comfortable living for the many older nuns in the order than it was about doing good work in the community.

It was eye-opening to hear about how, in her third decade of life, she had to acquire the knowledge - such as how much money an apartment or a car cost - that most of us learned at a younger age.

But I think it was Kris and Donna who were the most surprised - surprised that Lorraine easily and fluently related her experiences. In their minds, Lorraine not speaking previously about these things indicated that she was sensitive about them and so, they did not press her to reveal more. In contrast, Lorraine had not said much in the past because she assumed they really didn't have much interest.

This misunderstanding had been amplified by family members' different conversational styles. The storytellers "connect" by talking in a rapid-fire fashion that often involves another person jumping in as soon as the current talker pauses for a breath of air. They see another person immediately joining the conversation as in indication of interest. They also assume that anyone with something to say will want to share it and so will just start talking. But most of us listeners don't use that same style. We don't form our thoughts while the words are flying from our mouths, but instead prefer to have our thoughts collected before we begin. We also don't have to talk to connect. Lorraine said she had always felt everyone was very accepting and interested in her, despite her never having joined in on what Art sometimes refers to as "competitive speaking."

So that night, along with learning more about Lorraine's experiences, perhaps some of the more extroverted family members discovered that there are other ways of communicating besides what they normally practice - that there isn't a "right" way and a "wrong" way, but rather different ways and they all have a place.

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