Yesterday morning, The Scientist and I unexpectedly had to Do A Thing that neither of us had ever done before. For some reason–probably because I’m an eternal optimist–I volunteered to go into the town hall to find out how to Do The Thing while The Scientist waited outside with our dog.
Right inside the door there was a Help Desk so I approached the woman seated behind it and said, “There’s an office where I can Do This Thing here, right?” and she said, “Yes but, here let me spend ten minutes explaining five different excuses why you can’t actually Do That Complicated Version Of The Thing here and will have to drive to a nearby town to Do The Thing.”
That sounded inconvenient but I was so focused on Doing The Thing that I took the Post-it note with the address of The Other Place To Do The Thing and figured it was an unplanned hour lost from my day, but if that was what it took, fine.
Outside, I explained about the ten minute conversation with the five different excuses to The Scientist who said, “Grumble grumble grumble” and, instead of admiring my informative yellow Post-it note, immediately went inside.
Sensing that confrontation was afoot, I walked the dog around the parking lot, still clutching the Post-it note.
Sometime later–but certainly less time later than the hour it would have taken me to follow The Lady of the Five Excuses’s directions–The Scientist emerged from the town hall and told me that The Thing was done because, in fact, it was possible to Do The Thing there.
Fine. Awesome. Great job.
I had mixed feelings about his ability to Do The Thing, especially after I’d just been told by the same person that “no, absolutely, definitely, certainly not possible to Do The Thing here.”
The Scientist was clearly having his own mixed feelings. We decided to grab a coffee and talk over our giant stew of feelings because that’s what married people do and that’s especially what we do.
Sitting in Starbucks, we proceeded to dissect our contrasting experiences. I felt a bit like Watson to The Scientist’s Holmes as he explained how he’d managed to Do The Thing.
He told me that while he’d been waiting outside for me, a town employee walked by and The Scientist said, “Hey, do you know how I can Do The Thing” and the guy said, “Sure, there’s an office in the basement. It’s not my My Thing but there will be someone in The Thing Doing Office who can help you.”
That explained a lot. I’d taken the woman at her word because she’d told me that The Thing Doing Office couldn’t help me when I’d specifically asked. Clearly, she didn’t want to be bothered interfacing between me and The Thing Doing Office when she could just send me away and go back to reading ‘Divergent’ instead.
Which is no surprise. This happens all the time, right?
But here’s what is surprising: the way The Scientist and I viewed what had happened.
To me, having to go to another office to Do The Thing was inconvenient but I was so focused on Doing The Thing that I didn’t think beyond, “This is a little annoying.” I took the information I’d been given at face value because I had no other contradicting information to weigh it against. The social nuances of the situation–especially that the other person’s objectives might be different from mine–didn’t occur to me in the moment.
To The Scientist, the woman was a bully who was taking advantage of my lack of information and trying to make less work for herself by turning us into Someone Else’s Problem. As he recounted his conversation with The Lady of the Five Excuses, I noticed that many of the details he included pertained to the subtext of the conversation.
The things that rarely occur to me on the fly. The things that I can usually pick out later, after much analysis of a situation. The things that I was only starting to realize as we compared our experiences. In other words, the pragmatic (rather than the literal) use of language.
I was so focused on getting my goal accomplished–on using language as a tool to gain factual information–that I didn’t question the motives of the person I was asking to help me.
The Scientist, with the added assurance that he’d gained from his conversation with the town employee, did.
And that, in part, was the difference between our interactions with The Lady of the Five Excuses. When I Do Something New, I usually research it first. If I’d had time to prepare to Do The Thing in advance, I would have gone online to read about Thing Policy and Procedure. I would have Made a Plan, complete with a script. When The Lady of the Five Excuses gave me her song and dance routine, I would have known she wasn’t being straight with me and called her on it, backed up by an encyclopedic knowledge of Thing Policy and Procedure.
The Scientist, on the other hand, isn’t much of a researcher when it comes to minor interactions. For him, the casual chat with the town employee plus his ability to read the social nuances of a situation–It’s 8 AM and The Lady of the Five Excuses doesn’t want to deal with your complicated problem–are enough information for him to go on. When you factor in his in-tact pragmatic language skills, he’s doing a lot more on-the-fly interpretation and adjustment during a typical interaction than I am.
Not Usually This Naive
At least I’d like to think so. But I am literal. I see Help Desk and assume help will be forthcoming. And I’m goal oriented. I want to Do The Thing. A person says “Here’s how to Do The Thing” and my brain just goes straight to “Yes! Let’s Do The Thing now!”
There’s also this: I usually make up for with facts what I lack in pragmatic language skills.
If I know that I’m going into an unfamiliar situation, I go armed with plenty of background information. Then I run a continuous comparison of the information I’m receiving against my known facts. I also rely heavily on pattern recognition–people who are lying tend to fit one of a few predictable patterns.
Maybe my bullshit detection program wasn’t running in high gear. I’m usually pretty good at detecting when someone is trying to put one over on me. And at pushing back. Hard if necessary. This was a low stakes situation, though. Spending an additional hour doing something isn’t a very high cost.
If I hadn’t had The Scientist’s experience with the exact same person to compare my own experience against, I would have been inconvenienced by Doing The Thing in the Less Convenient Place, but I wouldn’t have thought beyond that. The social implications were secondary to Getting The Thing Done on that particular day.
A year or more ago, I might have felt a need to justify my thinking to The Scientist and he might have felt the same. It was a startling reminder of how much has changed in the past year to sit there in Starbucks with him, enjoying our coffee and marveling at how differently we see the world and how, as long as we’re each happy with the way we see things, that’s just fine.