In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” (The Princess Bride) Sometimes words just get in the way . . .
You know those spam filters that try to weed out the emails you probably don’t want to see? I check mine every now and then, because I sometimes find messages I really do want tucked in among the ads for lonely Asian girls and high-end watches. One day I spotted a subject line that I just knew had to be spam, but it made me laugh. It read: “Evade ‘porch pirates’ with a trusty pachyderm.”
Now, if I lived in an area where pirates were a problem, I’d definitely invest in an elephant. I mean, clearly, that’s the obvious course of action. Shiver me timbers, is that a pirate on the sidewalk? Cry havoc and let slip the elephant! However, as I have yet to see Cap’n Jack Sparrow sailing up my street (more’s the pity), I thought I’d pass. My house has a fairly pitiful excuse for a front porch and even a baby elephant tethered there would make it difficult for guests to squeeze past, not to mention that the homeowners’ association would doubtless have a few choice words to say about my new guard pachyderm.
But here’s the thing: that email? It wasn’t crazy spam after all. After I waxed eloquent on Facebook about porch pirates and pachyderms, a friend sent me a link to the actual product, something called an elephant trunk. Basically, it’s a fun-size version of those drive-through mailboxes at the post office. You’re supposed to bolt it to your porch so the UPS driver can leave your latest online purchase safely inside, thus foiling would-be thieves who specialize in nabbing goodies off one’s doorstep. Apparently “porch pirates” are a thing. (Those trunks are not cheap, by the way, but if you’re interested an online search will take you to several purveyors of pirate-repelling “pachyderms.”)
You may be wondering why I brought that up. Partly because it’s just fun to write about pirates, but mostly to point out that had it not been for my friend setting me straight, I would never have known there was a legitimate point to that email. The (no doubt hard-working) copywriter who penned that subject line tried to be clever and compelling; instead, their words just got in the way of the message.
It’s a common problem, isn’t it? We mean one thing but say another, or we say what we mean but the message doesn’t get through. When I was shopping for a stereo receiver a young store clerk asked me what kind of music I liked. Mentally flipping through my options—I have eclectic taste, so there were a lot of genres to choose from—I shrugged and said, “Classical.”
“Like the Eagles?” Um, sure. I was really thinking “like Mozart” but a little Don Henley never hurts. The clerk heard what I said, but to him it meant something completely different.
I wonder how often that happens and we don’t even know? Is it possible a comment that rubbed me the wrong way was not meant to be snarky at all? Could my lighthearted words have unintentionally pierced the heart of a friend? These days, I’m trying to take more care with my words. I’m trying to listen for the intent behind the comment, and avoid getting tripped up by vocabulary. We are all flawed human beings and language is an imprecise art, but we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.
One final note about pachyderms: a few days after my online rant about pirates, et al, I was leaving choir rehearsal when a friend handed me a gift. It was my very own porch protector, a wee little solar-powered elephant whose ears and trunk wiggle in an ‘about to sneeze’ manner any pirate would surely find terrifying. I named him Captain Sniffles. He’s a daily reminder of how nice it is to have friends who hear what you mean, not just what you say. And he never says a word.