November 2011

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November 2011

News From David Grindle, USITT Executive Director

A Word Is a Word Is a Word – Or is it?

Big or little, words (and elephants) can fool you.

Photo/David Grindle

A friend of mine specializes in the cultural interactions of people. She teaches at Indiana University, and when I was at IU I had most of the stage managers take a course called "Cross-Cultural Communication." This course focused on the various cultures in the United States and how words mean different things to different people, even in the same country or organization.

We see this all of the time when communicating with people in other "English" speaking nations. My friend, Antonia Collins, lives in Wales. We spent an evening around the dinner table talking about words that have vastly different meanings. Some are funny. Pants in the U.S. are worn over your underwear; pants in the United Kingdom are your underwear. So when I said, "I've ripped my pants," the urgency wasn't as apparent until I corrected myself and said trousers.

Other times, the meanings are not so funny in their difference. A plan, any plan, in the U.K. can be referred to as a scheme. Those of us in the U.S. treat that word with very negative overtones. So, when my U.K. friends were discussing a tax scheme, it took me a bit to grasp that no one was upset a scheme was going on! It became my favorite word to play with much to the annoyance of some of the folks around me.

In theatre we see this cross cultural communication breakdown as well. I am an eight-crayon person. As a stage manager it worked well; basic colors describe the world for me. But when I tried to "speak designer" and said something was teal, the designer almost lost his mind. "There's no teal anywhere in this entire show!" Oops, I should have stuck with blue or green. Apparently there are lots of names for the marriage of the two, and I picked the wrong one.

As I type this on a computer to go out in an electronic newsletter, I have to remind myself that the written language is one of the things that catapulted us towards the Renaissance and brilliant discovery. Words mean something. I jokingly said to a person recently, "That's a policy with a lowercase p," meaning unofficial. I was told, in the same manner, that there were no lower case p policies. We often get in to moments of frustration or downright anger with our colleagues in this world because they use a word that means one thing to us and another to them. But then we don't sort out what the problem is.

Think about the moment of confusion you encounter every day because you use a simple word, and it is misinterpreted. The theatre world is full of them (brace, practical, distressed, physical), and they lead to more frustration because each of us attaches details and meaning that are personal to us that the receiver may not be aware of.

One final example. A friend was an Assistant Stage Manager on a production of Aida (the opera, not the musical). Several times in the first dress with animals, he told a rather famous singer she would need to move; there was an elephant coming through. The singer remained where she was. Finally, the pachyderm came through nudging the artist out of the way, and the singer turned to the ASM and said, "You didn't say it was a big elephant!" True story; I swear it. But it's all about the words.

David Grindle

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