The holiday season is always a great time to practice communicating – especially if you are in the science field and your parents want to know what you do. I thought I’d share one of my most embarrassing stories to highlight difficulties sharing ideas with mixed audiences. If I’m brave enough, I share this with new medical students to get them to check their assumptions.
I spent Christmas in New Zealand one year. Sure, it was summer but as a Canadian, I thought I’d fit in well in another Commonwealth country. I’m sure there were more similarities than differences but there were times that I was out of place…
The first thing that stuck out was the party atmosphere for Christmas Eve. In my part of the world, Christmas Eve is a quiet family event. In Auckland, we went out drinking; we started with my boyfriend’s family but then the parents headed home. The younger people got home around 5 am – in Vancouver, we would be getting up to open presents, partly because we go to bed early (all that family time).
Only 2 hours after we got home – yes, 7 am – we were woken up by the kids so that Christmas celebrations could get started. And the first event was a huge English breakfast… with every older member of my boyfriend’s family. This was the first time that I was meeting most of them. A quick shower and all was good (right?).
Everyone was so nice. My boyfriend’s mom had made pancakes so that I could show everyone how to use the maple syrup from Canada. Conversation was a bit strained because it was a large family gathering and many people needed sleep.
I had gone to Fiji before New Zealand and there had been delays on the flight from Fiji. While I was waiting, there had been an annoying guy bothering me. At the breakfast, we started talking about funny airport stories. One of the older relatives asked me how I dealt with the annoying guy and I responded:
“Well, he wouldn’t leave me alone so I finally just blew him off and moved to a corner.”
The entire table went silent – I think someone dropped their fork. I was confused until my boyfriend’s grandmother (who was direct from central casting for a sweet white-haired grandmother) replied:
“What do you do when you like someone, dear?”
The boyfriend started to explain to his family that the phrase has two meanings in Canada, including the innocent explanation of dismissing this man. Everyone started to giggle nervously and I think my face was red for 3 days.
I tell this story to show that even when people are speaking the same language, they may be making different assumptions. It is a lesson to keep in mind when we are explaining scientific concepts and impacts. We might think we are being perfectly clear but others might be hearing a completely different story.
OK, time to share – any good holiday stories from you?