when i’m at water aerobics and the instructor says, cross country! and models the movement, i think, does she realize that cross country applies to the summer olympics as well as the winter? then she calls out, like you’re doing a slalom. and again i look around and think, does everyone ski? if i were a water aerobics instructor and i shouted out “running man!” would the audience know what movement to perform as they watched me emulate kid-n-play from house party? if i said, cabbage patch! would they think i was referring to the doll and float in the water quizzically watching my gyrations? one of my favorite phrases is “long pole in the tent.” my colleagues would say this often to our german client and I’d think, do they know what that means? what is common about these phrases?
i find that the phrases we use, much like the vocabulary we choose, is drawn from personal experience. if you ski or camp, such statements are familiar. but what about those who have never skied? who have never seen a skier on the giant slalom, knees bouncing up and down? or the person who has never pitched a tent? (yet another turn of phrase.) more often than not instructors and presenters assume the audience is one of them; they know the line from the bob dylan song and can sing along, they have seen monty python dozens of times and find it hysterically funny.
but what if i were to quote the color purple? would the audience know “all my life i had to fight?” would they understand “harpo! who dis woman?” or when they are talking about how they love dogs and i quote mos def from the italian job, “i had a bad experience”? it’s all relative. i was at karaoke with colleagues and couldn’t sing along to “i’ve got friends in low places” but only one other person could join me in belting out “car wash.” there is a tacit expectation “everyone knows that!” but the truth is, not everyone grew up on garth brooks, janis joplin, and willie nelson. some of us grew up listening to motown and r&b. we can quote “what’s going on” by marvin gaye because the lryics are apropos of what we are experiencing right now. a roar rips through the audience at the first few bars of sam cooke’s “a change is gonna come” because that is what we need right now.
oftentimes our understanding of others is like underexposed film, dark and hard to view, we are only able to identify outlines and make assumptions about what we see. we don’t spend enough time in the dark room adding solution, agitating the image, waiting for the photo to become clear. perhaps we do not have the patience required to learn the development process, knowing what elements are needed and when, in order to see the picture unfold.