I’m always excited when I hear or participate in ‘quality conversation’. Afterwards I share examples with those in my ‘communication skills’ workshops. Yesterday as we sat having breakfast in a local coffee bar, I was fascinated at the topics I could overhear being discussed by strangers at the table next to ours.
They were talking about the English language and how punctuation can change the meaning of a message. This was of particular interest to me because in my ‘How to get your point across’ workshops, punctuation is an important aspect of the written examples participants work on. The big question is: how do we minimise the gap between the sender’s intention (in sending a message) and the recipient’s perception of the same message? (I have devoted previous blogs to this topic so won’t expand on it further.)
During their conversation, the strangers gave some outstanding examples of how punctuation can alter the meaning of a message. Two that they quoted were (and I have purposely changed names):
- Sam says George is mad.
- Sam, says George, is mad.
And then the question was posed:
‘What is the difference between a panda and a cowboy?’
- The former eats shoots and leaves.
- The latter eats, shoots and leaves.
In written communication, one comma can significantly change the meaning of our message.
Let’s look at another area in which punctuation is important. A question we need to ask ourselves is: ‘how is punctuation impacting on the meaning of our lives’?
Life can be thought of as a continuum. Our lives are artificially punctuated in a variety of ways. Each birthday marks a change, an event that often puts us in a different category. That change in age enables us to do certain things and excludes us from other opportunities. It may qualify us for a certain race or prevent us from entering a ‘Miss World Contest’.
Think of your next birthday: what will you no longer qualify for? For example, in my uncle’s case, as a colonel in the army, he enjoyed his work but the army computers were set to recognise people whose ages were up to only 75, so there was no way he could be paid his salary after that age! So, he very reluctantly resigned.
And then what new opportunities will your next birthday present? You may now be able to apply for a driver’s licence. For many of us, it could qualify us for extra tax concessions on medical expenses!
Just as a ‘full stop’ ends a sentence, and if there is a new sentence, it starts after that ‘full stop’, so a birthday marks the end of an age and the beginning of a new era. Similarly, each New Year follows another ‘full stop’ and generates a whole new range of possibilities. For example, if we have used up our Medical Aid for the calendar year, on January 1 we may have our full quota again!
For those of us with different religious or cultural affinities we may also recognise New Year at different times and our celebrations my take different forms. An illustration is that February 3 2011 will be the Chinese New Year which marks the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit and the end of the Year of the Tiger.
Any ‘New Year’ may be a good time to make a fresh start, to strategise our future. But if we do this only once a year aren’t we missing out on other opportunities? Shouldn’t we be setting aside regular sessions to exercise an ‘attitude of positive discontent’? I think of the wonderful story told in ‘Management Mess-ups: 57 pitfalls you can avoid (and stories of those who didn’t)’. The author, Mark Eppler was walking along a pier and saw fishermen with their boats ‘upside down’ on the beach. He was concerned as he realised that by not being out fishing that the fishermen were not generating income. They explained that they regularly ‘punctuate’ their lives by not going fishing and rather spend the day ‘scraping their boats’. He still didn’t understand. They explained that barnacles (small crustaceans) attach themselves to the boats below the water level and multiply at an alarming rate. This makes the boats heavier, slower and less manoeuvrable. In addition, the boats can consume up to 40% more fuel in order for the fishermen to reach the waters where they fish.
Doesn’t that sound just like our lives? Things creep up on us. ‘The deception of the gradual’ is one way of referring to the process. We don’t realise we are being weighed down, burdened by excesses. It becomes harder to achieve our goals and takes us more time because we are less flexible. And the cost of achievement is greater in terms of energy used. So we become less effective.
By creating punctuations in the flow of our lives, we can pause, observe, reflect and then take appropriate action. Regarding our resources, our service and the way we operate, we should assume that nothing is good enough and ask ourselves how we can improve. Of course, after careful consideration, we may decide that something is the best it can be for us at this time, so we’ll leave it as it is. However, even if it is good enough (now), we need to create an opportunity in the future to re-examine and reassess whether it is still the best it can be. This helps us to avoid becoming complacent or forming bad habits.
So, my message to you is: punctuate your lives periodically in a purposeful way. Have a break from routine and carefully appraise every aspect of your life. Are things the best they can be? If not, how could you improve? And then take appropriate action. Implement strategies for success.
Just as the punctuation in written words can alter the meaning of sentences, so the meaning of our lives can be altered considerably by strategic pauses and relevant positive action.
Quality conversation is not confined to coffee shops – although a good cappuccino can help!