On Communication: Situational Awareness


City Center: AciReale

This month I think I wrote seven nonsense paragraphs about text messaging and fragmented conversation. Nothing made sense. Usually, I love language. I love finding the perfect word for my perfect sentence. I deal all day in words. And many, many days words fail me. So instead of insight, I offer my favorite miscommunication story:

When my car died in a parking lot near AciReale, Sicily, I did what seemed logical and called by husband. He drove thirty minutes from his office on the Navy base to pick me up. I left my car unattended despite the gas station attendant’s insistence that it was “molto pericoloso” next to the fuel tankers stacked three deep on the side of the road. I made Cody drive me to the mechanic in the city who spoke no English, but always bought me a café and called me “Bella.” Giuseppe offered to go get the car later in the day, but Cody and I were worried about my grandmother’s old Chevy Cavalier, so we drove back up the streets of AciReale with the shop’s long, gray tow rope.

AciReale is an ancient city famous for its wild Carnavale held every spring since the 1500s. The narrow, cobbled streets wind through 16th century churches and modern apartment complexes. Most corners are blind and in some places cars pull into driveways to let downhill traffic pass. Every road climbs up and away from the sparkling Ionian coast. It’s picturesque – and a traffic nightmare.

As we pulled into the Agip gas station, men in blue coveralls watched us stop Cody’s white Fiat next to my car. They shook their heads as we looped the tow rope between our two cars. I was grateful I couldn’t understand the dialect – they clearly thought we were crazy or stupid. Maybe both.

Cody and I didn’t speak. Instead we grunted and huffed at each other, the anger and frustration simmering to near boiling. This was a rushed, unfamiliar operation; one that we needed to be done with, now.
As I started the Fiat’s engine, I noted the tension building in Cody’s neck as he reached into the car for a bottle of water. His khaki uniform looked out of place in the dusty, hot parking lot. He was supposed to be behind his desk, not under my car.

Cody is at home almost anywhere, but a flight squadron suited him especially well. Military communication is systematic, predictable, and direct. You give orders. You follow orders. He was trained to work quickly and without question. Cody can size up a situation before I even recognize what is happening around me. His hyper-awareness served him well in the cockpit and in his work as an operations officer, but it sometimes made life with me frustrating.

Parking on the street in AciReale

I started down the road back to the city center pulling Cody and the old Cavalier by the gray rope. The road was just wide enough for passing cars and I hugged the concrete wall as passed the Tabbachi and the fish man. I could hear Cody shouting instructions. He pounded his fist on the steering wheel as I swerved to miss a cart of artichokes in front of the corner grocery. The rope between the vehicles swung low and drug against the stones of the street.
I ignored Cody’s shouts.

I could see Cody waving his arms, urging me to get down the hill. I stopped at a busy intersection and watched my mirror as the blue car rolled to a stop behind me. The traffic ran past us – bumper to bumper little clown cars weaving in and out of each other like a hungry school of piranha. I saw the break in traffic just as Cody threw his arm upward and yelled, “Go, Go!”

I hit the gas hard on to the floor of the Fiat, but the car didn’t move. I downshifted and tried again. Nothing. I looked in my mirror and saw Cody rushing to get out of his vehicle. The rope was stretched taut between the cars and the air smelled like burning rubber.

a-roman-traffic-jamCody stalked toward me, his hands clenched at his sides. My car was in the middle of the intersection, but the traffic still buzzed around us, squeezing up and over the tiny sidewalk.

“Situational awareness!” he yelled.

My mouth gaped. I felt my head swivel on my neck. The rope between the cars was frayed and stretched, almost broken. The old cobbled road was marked with black. An old woman stood on the corner shaking her handbag at us and yelling in Sicilian. She backed up along the tiny sidewalk, desperate to get away from us.

“What is happening?” I yelled back.

The story spilled out: the old woman had walked between our cars. Cody watched her think it through: she looked at the rope. She looked at my car and then at Cody’s vehicle and then back at the rope. She stepped over just as I pulled into traffic. The rope went tight, caught a foot, and sent the woman flying, her shopping bags stretched out in front like paper wings.

I never even saw her.

Instead of the “Go, Go!” I heard, Cody was yelling “No, no!”

“How could you get that so wrong?” he said.

I’m not sure which words failed more that day in Sicily. Every time I think about the old woman on the corner, I gasp for air and then laugh – we were so lucky we didn’t hit her with our oversized American machine. But I also remember how clearly I heard Cody’s instructions – and how wrong I got them. The funniest part of the story though was Cody’s reaction, labeled so quickly and accurately: situational awareness. Somehow he found the perfect words.

~ Sarah

Good communication skills: what does this actually mean?

communication crossword (blue-white cubes crossword series)

communication crossword (blue-white cubes crossword series)

Research supports the idea that employers seek new employees with strong written and oral communication skills; however, I suspect that like the educational buzzword, “Critical thinking,” people don’t actually know what good “Communication Skills” mean.

When I was in college, I had to take two required Communication courses. One was a public speaking class whose main function was to rid my classmates of their Bronx and Brooklyn accents. Since that was not something I struggled with, I had an odd sort of “mid-Atlantic” non-specific accent, I did well in the class even though I wrote my speeches on the bus traveling back to New York, after having spent my weekend with my boyfriend in Philadelphia. I have almost no memory of the second class except that it was a large lecture class, held in a nondescript lecture hall. The only other thing I remember is the final exam that asked one question; “How do we know if we actually communicate with anyone?”

In those days, we handwrote our exams in blue books with odd thinish paper. We had three hours to write this exam. I looked at the question and was kind of flummoxed. I had no idea how I would create an answer that would take me three hours to write.

What I wrote was essentially this: “We do not know, and have no real way of knowing if we communicate with someone else. We have to take communication on faith. It is fairly safe to assume that if we ask someone to shut the door, and they do it, we are communicating with them. However, their act of shutting the door could, in fact, be unrelated to the fact that we asked them to shut the door. We simply have to take it on faith that we communicate when we say something to someone and they respond in what appears to be an appropriate manner.”

I think that answer is fairly glib, but I did get an A in the class. I referred to no communication theory in my answer, and in fact, I have no memory of studying any theory in the class at all. I would say that neither of my Communications classes was a high point of my education.

So, what are employers asking for? Are they using “Communication Skills” as a short-hand for something else? Clearly, employees need to be able to speak well, to ask good questions, to understand directions and to be courteous. If the job requires it, they need to be able to put together a logical, complete sentence. They need to be able to adjust to the cultural climate of the job. Do all of these attributes get lumped into “Communication Skills”? Should they be?

I look at my students and wonder how many of them can figure out how to negotiate the work world. Some obviously can, and they are the students who figured out how to negotiate the elementary school playground, the junior high lunch room and the high school college application process. The students who will do well in the work world are the students who come to see me if they have questions about an assignment, or who email me that they will not be in class.

While all of these skills could be lumped into “Communication Skills,” I wonder how many of them can be taught. I wonder if Communications courses at the college level are the way to go about helping students acquire the many skills they need to be good communicators, because really, when it comes down to it, employers do not want someone who takes good communication on faith, but rather they want someone who is confident, flexible and articulate. They want someone who isn’t cowed or intimidated, as well as someone who is empathetic and thoughtful. All of these can be lumped into Communications, but can they all be taught?



Don’t coddle the slut-shamers.


Recommended reading:

The Coddling of the American Mind ~ The Atlantic

Slut-shaming undermines women ~ The Boston Globe

My Friday classes meet in a light filled computer lab on the second floor of our campus’ newest academic building. The room is state of the art. Six flat screen TV’s line the classroom and a Smartboard projection system lights up the white wall at the front of the lab. Despite the modern bells and whistles, my Comp students slump in their chairs like they’re attending a five a.m. paint drying lecture. They scatter their backpacks on the floor and prop their chins on giant cans of Monster Energy. English is not their top priority.

Right now we are working through an op/ed unit that has us reading and thinking about current events that in many cases divide our country. We’ve read articles about cultural appropriation, about empathy, about cellphones. My goal is always the same: to challenge the status quo, to question accepted ideas and typical patterns of thinking. My job is to teach critical thinking skills.

The trouble is, critical thinking is a slippery concept. Educators are fond of jargon – “critical thinking” might be our favorite phrase. We always have a new theory to roll out with a set of shiny, matching words to describe our latest iteration of the same old story: we’re supposed to teach students how to think. But teaching sometimes reluctant scholars how to think – instead of what to think – gets messy.   Recent criticisms of higher ed, point to reluctant engagement; many college instructors are afraid to venture into the fray. Some fear that students will take offense and find new ways to opt out of the difficult work of learning to think critically. We’ve been accused of “coddling” the “American mind” by allowing students to opt out of the tough conversations. But as the critics also point out, “critical thinking [by any definition] requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial thinking.” Too often, this seems like a tall order.

Sometimes it helps to practice critical thinking with an uncomfortable – even shocking – topic. In fact, it might just be necessary.

Fridays are rough – the college parking lot is noticeably empty, there is always more yawning, more groaning about lack of sleep and hangovers. It seemed like a good day to throw around some mildly shocking vocabulary, so I asked my students to consider the problem of slut-shaming.

We read an essay which claims that sexual assault on college campuses is exacerbated by the “wide spread belief that some women are sluts.” I began our discussion with an admission: we were all going to stumble over our words. The topic is taboo, but familiar. We would have to use language usually reserved for private, sotto voce exchanges. We’d all likely feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, but we were going to do it anyway. I told my students that I expected them to speak up if they were offended. I said I expected them to try – that our classroom space was a place of failure, a place to make attempts.

In the end we laughed a lot. We asked good, solid questions – mostly questions we couldn’t answer. We sketched out ideas about why we make judgments, about what we might do differently, about who was to blame. And we ended up in a new place. This new knowledge wasn’t about clarity or facts, but about the benefits of the thinking process. I think we learned that if we were willing to wrestle with new ideas and reconsider old ideas, that our world gets the slightest bit larger.

Larger is what learning looks like. But it is also a shock to the system. Starting with an idea that is uncomfortable – like slut-shamming or racism or human rights – might make the process easier. If we begin in a place of uneasiness, we are forced to deal with our “emotion and desire” directly. Considering factual evidence and alternative viewpoints might feel better than sitting with our own anxieties about a taboo topic. At least it’s a good place to start.

~ Sarah


Did Harry Ever Really Meet Sally?

when harry met sally

My husband and I have had a long standing argument about When Harry Met Sally… that 1989 romantic comedy with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. In it Harry Burns, Billy Crystal’s character continues to maintain that men and women can’t be friends because the sex always gets in the way, and the movie goes on to show sex getting in the way of Harry’s and Sally’s friendship. My husband maintains that this argument is correct. I have always contended that, while this is amusing, it is not honest, that men and women can and should be friends. In my own life I have many male friends with whom there is no sexual tension or even a hint of sexual interest. I also think that this idea is deeply dangerous to marriage. If men and women cannot be friends because the sex always gets in the way, then what does that say about marriage? What does that say about a relationship that is supposed to based on mutual respect, love and companionship? Sex is, of course, part of marriage, but it’s not everything, and if there’s no room for friendship, then what?

But the problem that I see in adhering so strongly to this belief is that it cuts off the possibility of friendship between half the human race. It segregates and ghettoizes the sexes, for a really antiquated reason. Given today’s work places, and fluid child care arrangements, men and women must work together in ways that they would not have during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Think about TV’s Mad Men, the roles of men and women that show are very clearly proscribed and even the professional women are not accorded the same status as the men. However, much, tho’ not all of that has changed in the last 60 or so years, and while, not perfect, there is more equality in the work place, and more parents are sharing child care responsibility. Labor is less divided along gender roles. If men and women cannot be friend in the work place, what does that do to working together on joint projects, working cooperatively, working as a team. To assume that men and women cannot be friends because sex always gets in the way is to assume that men are always sexual predators.

Harry and Sally spend a lot of time walking around New York, being friends, but when Harry wants to talk about something serious he has to resort to silly voices. He can’t take an emotional risks without slipping into “character.”  It is difficult to have a real friendship with someone whose does this, who takes on a “persona” when he wants to reach into emotional territory.

At the end of the movie, Harry runs across New York (and the movie is an homage to Manhattan) to find Sally at a New Year’s Eve dance because at one time, earlier in the movie they had promised each other that neither of them would let the other be alone on New Year’s Eve. He tells he loves her.. in words like “When you realize that you want to be with someone the rest of your life, then you have to start now” Sally’s response is, “I hate you, Harry Burns, I hate you.”

Her response has always chilled me on several levels. First of all, it’s not true and she could say “I love you,” back to him. She does love him in some weird way. But it also feels to me like a capitulation to a kind of 1950’s relationship. It seems to me that Sally sees that the only way for her to have a relationship with Harry is totally on his terms. We know that they will settle into a traditional marriage, as the little interviews with the older couples in the movie attest, and on some level, will never know each other.

After Harry and Sally have sex in the movie, and it messes up their friendship, they each call their best friends to talk about the situation. I wonder what would have happened if Harry had called Sally’s friend, Marie, and Sally had called Harry’s friend, Jess. They might have had a chance to learn something about each other and about the opposite sex instead of simply slipping into the old clichés about relationships.

The difficulty is that the old clichés about relationships don’t work. They leave partners wondering about how to talk to each other. They let partners turn to their same sex friends to reinforce the clichés. Opening up friendship to include friends of both sexes might actually provide a refreshing and less stale perspective on the world.




Dear Readers:

It may seem that we’re silent because we have nothing to say,  but in reality, there’s so much to say that a blog post seems insufficient.

Please stay tuned while we settle into a new semester and figure out how to pour these vast thoughts into this small medium.

Thanks for reading!