Not From Where You’re Standing

Communication – science, art form, or game? You be the judge.


Tall — that’s what you notice first. Then his gait grabs you — he walks like a runway model. Head up and half smiling, sure of his right-of-way. In an outback coat and black shirt, jeans, and boots he’d be at home on Vancouver’s streets at 2:00 a.m. At 2:00 p.m., he makes airport security guards stand a little taller themselves. But appearances are deceiving — he’s not a security threat, he’s just young. Young enough to risk being a smart-aleck with a stranger he needs something from.

Not knowing what she’s getting into, the airline agent glances up at him — looks again. Looking down at the screen, she asks about photo identification. A standard request, a non-standard response.

Do you have any photo ID?

Yes. Then silence.

She looks up, puzzled. He isn’t moving. Not reaching into a back pocket or inside that preposterous coat for a wallet. The inaction joins the silence, piling up between them.

May I see it? A tad impatient.

I have no objection. Very pleasant.

Another pause, as she processes her options.

Can I see it? A little sharper.

Not from where you’re standing. Perfectly polite, perfectly precise. Merely informing.

Show it to me! OK — now she’s annoyed.

Certainly. As he reaches for his wallet, happy to oblige the implied-request-turned-explicit-demand, the rest is left unsaid — Why didn’t you ask?

Not a standard exchange. Even occasional flyers know they’re not conducting a survey: they want to see your photo ID and they will see it. Asking the wrong question seems more polite than giving an instruction — Show me your photo ID. It seems more efficient than asking a chain of questions. Usually, the shorthand form works fine.

How often do we hear shorthand forms and respond not to what was said, but to what we think was meant? The cashier asks if we have two pennies and we surrender them without comment, simplifying our change. The hotel clerk asks if we know our license plate number, and we recite it. The Alabama-based call center operator asks if we can spell that odd Canadian city name, and we do. Someone on the street asks if we know where a certain store is, and we launch into directions. The waiter asks if we’ve had time to make a choice, and we give him our order without further prompting.

Usually we’re right. We understand the intent of these questions and respond appropriately. But as all aspects of our lives speed up, perhaps we’re a little quicker to use the shorthand forms in what we say, not just with service people in standard transactions, but with people we work or live with. And so it happens that we sometimes have trouble getting our question heard, much less answered. Listeners think they know where we’re going, what we mean. They jump in with the answer before we can even get the question out. They’re just trying to help, to cut out seemingly unnecessary steps. All those steps that involve listening and waiting.

We stop listening — to others and to ourselves. As responders, we believe that we have heard the direct question. Only rarely does someone respond precisely to the question actually asked.

Do you have any photo ID?


As askers, we believe that we have asked the direct question. Like the airline agent, we react with impatience when someone doesn’t respond as we expected. When they play a different game with us.

Can I see it?

Not from where you’re standing.

Maybe communication isn’t an art. Maybe it’s a game — cooperative or competitive, touch or full contact, depending on the circumstances and the players. Like any game, it’s hard to learn just by reading the rules. You have to play.

It’s safest playing with people you know, people who won’t be too startled or irritated when you violate the accepted shorthand forms. But sometimes, like the young man at the airport, I like to surprise someone. I choose wisely; I never play with people who carry guns. But there are many potential partners out there, signalling in various ways their readiness to play.

Reading a book while waiting in line outside a popular brunch place on Calgary’s 17th Avenue, I look up to see a young woman in front of me. As a middle-aged woman, I look like a safe choice. I guess every form of refuge has its price — the Eagles said that.

Do you know what time it is? she asks.

I flashback to a West Wing episode. The White House counsel is prepping the press secretary for her testimony.

Do you know what time it is?, he asks. She checks her watch and tells him the time. Impatiently.

He says, I wish you’d stop doing that.

Doing what? Even more impatiently.

Answering more than I asked, he says. There’s a tense pause. He says again, Do you know what time it is?

She stares at him long enough to be rude. Yes. Flatly.

I look up from my watch. The young woman is waiting for my answer to her question. Do you know what time it is?

I could just tell her the time. I could say Yes and stop. Instead, I choose the middle course.

Yes. I smile. Would you like to know too?

Let the games begin.

This entry was posted in Language and Communication, Laughing Frequently and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Not From Where You’re Standing

  1. Marion says:

    The incorrect use of can/could is one of my pet peeves, although I’m not sure that peeve is strong enough. “Can you pass the salt?” Well yes, probably, but since you asked that way, I won’t! Poor spoken English irritates me more than it should; I don’t know why it does, and I wish I could turn it down a bit. I would if I could …

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marion – Yes, even when it isn’t outright annoying, I still hear it, and to not much purpose. Maybe we can form a club….

  2. Ralph says:

    It might be as often as once a day, on average, that I am asked by a student “Do you know where such-and-such a room is.” I too choose the middle course….. most of the time: “Yes, as a matter of fact I do. Would you like me to tell you where it is?”

    Wonderful essay, this. It points to an interesting mix of phenomena, I believe.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ralph – These interactions remind me of Wengler’s Teaching Theorem (I think) – Receive them ignorant; dispatch them confused. Having to think about an interaction can’t help but be good.

  3. Marion — I have a friend who carries a black magic marker in her purse, and uses it — on any grammatically-offending sign she can get at. Very satisfying and recommended, she says.

    Women make men furious (I am told…) when they answer the questions men ask of them in a less than direct fashion. He: “What time are we leaving tonight for [downtown outing]?” She: “Where are we going to park?” (The woman knows she can’t answer his question until he answers hers.) He thinks she is being illogical.

    A 4-year-old I know answered the phone: Caller said, “Is your mother home?” and the little guy said, “Yes,” and hung up.

    But my favorite question/observation (between a flirty woman & a nerd) was shown on-line yesterday:

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Great link! It’s a constant balancing act – trying to understand and respond to intent, while not overstepping.

  4. Jim Taylor says:

    This business of answering what you think I asked, rather than what I asked, has been a curse in our marriage (that is, of course, Joan’s and mine, not yours and mine!)
    “Would you like to go out for dinner tonight?”
    “Okay, what did you do this time?”
    “Stephen would probably like this toy.”
    “He got more presents at Christmas than Katherine did.”
    “So we shouldn’t…”
    “Well, if you feel that strongly about it…”
    Sometimes disentangling the threads requires working back through several levels of what each of us thought we said.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – I sometimes think it amazing that people communicate at all… Long-term relationships offer untold opportunities for knowing what someone is thinking even before they speak, as well as for reading-in entirely unintended meanings based on previous interactions. As for the ‘curse’ – all the counting is on the one side, I bet – we remember the times we got into silly loops, and not the times we understood the other at a level deeper than words.

  5. Susan Wright says:

    Now that we’re on the topic of coded conversations in the context of marriage, let me tell you about a code my husband uses that drove me crazy until I figured it out. We’d talk about going to a movie on the weekend and after much dithering land on Movie X. Then the next day he’d ask “Are you sure you want to go to out?” My response would be, “Why? Don’t you want to go?” Then the discussion would go all over the place. Did he change his mind? Did I change my mind? Did he not like Movie X? And so on. Finally I learned that the correct (and easy) answer to “Are you sure you want to go out this weekend?” was “Yes”.
    Moral: always take a question from your spouse at face value. If there’s a hidden message he’ll tell you about it sooner or later.

    • Susan —
      My husband says if women want to know what men are thinking — and ask them — they will say, “Eh, nothing.” But what they mean is “None of your business.”

      He also says men are simple creatures and say what they mean. Unlike women who have hidden meanings men are expected to decode. Women therefore expect men have such hidden meanings.

      So learning your taking your spouse at face value is huge! And well worth passing on! How many years have you been married? 😀

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Barbara – Yes, we do seem to expect that others are like us – in business, they call this the Marketing Fallacy. And it’s hard to react based on a different set of assumptions – if you’re used to coming at things sideways, of course others are doing the same thing!

        • This Fallacy is especially true in politics. Want to know what kind of person a candidate is? Just listen to what and who they criticize.

          • Isabel Gibson says:

            Barbara – An interesting perspective. If we are “known by the company we keep”, maybe we are also known by what we purport to shun. And how vehemently. My favourite show about American politics, The West Wing, had the Republican Speaker of the House as interim President for a while, due to an improbable series of events. As he came into the White house with ‘his crowd’, he attempted to get the prickly inhabitants to prickle a bit less. He said something like, We agree on the important things. For me, I like that – it keeps our differences in perspective.

      • steven says:

        I don’t know your husband at all, but this “men say what they mean, women speak in an inscrutable code” thing kind of bothers me. I suppose it’s meant to be in fun, but… well, just because a man finds it easier to communicate with other men doesn’t mean that men communicate more clearly, right? Maybe there are different communication styles in use in our society, distributed unevenly by gender, and people find it easier to use the style they’re most familiar with. And that makes me think that men who have concluded that women speak in code just haven’t thought much about it, but have assumed that whatever kind of communication they find comfortable and easy is the right way for things to be. And, well, holy male privilege, Batman.

        But like I say, I don’t know your husband. I don’t mean to apply my inferences to him specifically, but to explain why I find that kind of statement troublesome — or maybe more precisely, to explain the troublesome ideas that I think such remarks support, even when the speaker doesn’t support them.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Steven – What I’m hearing isn’t someone suggesting that their natural style (even assuming it holds for a majority of same-gender folk, which may well be problematic) is ‘right’ in any sense, but, rather, that the other style is harder to understand. Seems to me women find men’s (presumed) no-sub-text questions (e.g. Do you still want to go out this weekend?) to be tricky to handle because if they were asking, there might be a sub-text. And men have tripped over missed implications too often to be happy in responding to the question-as-asked, the comment-as-phrased, but don’t really know what else to do. For me, this doesn’t sound like assertions of male privilege or “Obscurity, thy name is woman” (see also in this regard, my blog on both men and women being from this planet). I have worked with exceedingly indirect men, and exceedingly direct women – but note them in part because they stand out from their respective crowds.

          • steven says:

            I’m not sure what you’re saying, but I’m going to argue anyway.

            Objection 1: I don’t think the language we’re using to describe the putative difference in communication styles is neutral. The underlying theory seems to be that utterances have two levels of meaning, a literal one which comes from the plain meanings of the words, and a subtextual one which comes from some further act of interpretation and inference. Then we assert that Man Style uses only the literal meaning — they “say what they mean” — and Woman Style puts important meanings in the subtext — which is a “hidden” and requires “decoding” to access. This description of the situation assigns Man Style a lot of positive-valence traits (direct, clear, straightforward) and assigns Woman Style a lot of negative-valence traits (hidden, secretive, in code). It’s not a neutral description.

            Objection 2: I’m also skeptical about the underlying theory. All language use requires interpretation. There’s no such thing as “plain literal meaning”. Merely using words instead of primate vocalizations means expecting your listener to do some decoding. A theory with two levels, one called “plain meaning” and one called “hidden subtext”, just doesn’t cut it; at minimum we need a spectrum of explicitness, but I think what the theory really should describe is systems of types of inference that people make and expect other people to make, and how people use their knowledge of those systems (and some theory of mind) when speaking and listening. Then we can look at how people judge “explicitness”, which I suspect is largely (but not exclusively) based on whether the speech follows the rules of the system the listener expects to be in use.

            Objection 3: What we think of as Man Style involves lots of customary inferences about things we don’t think of as explicit. For example, I suspect that stereotyped Man Style is much less explicit about the speaker’s emotional state. Then there’s all the navigation around unspoken (hidden!) codes of masculinity, and then there’s how men subtextually posture at each other and jostle for status. Men don’t simply “say what they mean”; nobody does.


          • Isabel Gibson says:

            Steven – You make good points. Compounding the complexity is that men and women may well speak differently in different situations: amongst themselves, in general mixed company, in conversation with friends, colleagues, family members, or an intimate partner. This is part of why I suspect that there is a distinctive/typical Isabel-style (which would be difficult to summarize so that it applied in all cases), but am less sure there is a Woman-style, overall. Go back to work.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Susan – That’s way too simple! I like it.

  6. Seungji says:

    Ha Ha this sounds very familiar.
    My boyfriend plays this game everyday!
    In Korean, we ask directly like “Show me your passport please”, or “Which direction should I go to get to X?”, or “Pass me the salt”.
    So when I learned how to ask in English back in junior highschool, this format of question seemed odd to me.
    After all these years of practice and getting familiar with, are you telling me this annoys people?!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Seungji – Well, it should sound exactly like your boyfriend, since it was him! The problem with indirect questions isn’t that they annoy people, it’s that we learn to assume we know the underlying intent and can end up by not listening to the actual question asked. As I say – usually, the shorthand form works fine – but when we take it too far, it certainly causes trouble! I had not known that Korean is more direct than English. (I think Spanish is even more indirect than English. Maybe there’s a research project here.) There is an old story that the trains in Europe carry warning signs to keep people from putting their arms out the windows. (OK – it must be old – no train today would have windows that open.) But the story was that the Italian said, It is unwise to put your arm out of the window. The English said, Do not put your arm out of the window. And the German said, It is forbidden to put your arm out of the window.

      • steven says:

        I am outraged by the allegation that I am the person in this plainly fictional story. Outraged.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Steven – Fictional in one sense, perhaps, but true in the sense that matters, nonetheless. Who else could have even imagined such an encounter?

  7. steven says:

    The concepts of Ask Culture and Guess Culture are relevant here, and deserve to be widely known.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Steven – Yes, this applies to the conversation about male/female communication and where it can go wrong.

Comments are closed.