Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Lend me your ear

“I don’t want it to go in one ear and out the other.”

There was a time when idioms were dangerous territory for me. Whenever I shot off my mouth and used an idiom, I would regret it as soon as I saw looks of puzzlement on the face of the unfortunate listener. To avoid anyone thinking I was not playing with a full deck, I’d feign an intelligent expression on my own face. That way they might question whether it was their own fault for not listening better or for not understanding my complex thinking.

From the time I arrived in the United States for college after graduating from high school in Japan, I’d listen for American idioms, analyze their usage and then insert them into my own conversations. More often than not my attempts at sounding like an “American” with slang and idioms went down like a lead balloon. It drove me up a wall.

Why do we use idioms? I decided to ask Google and found this answer at one site: “We use idioms to express something that other words do not express as clearly or as cleverly. We often use an image or symbol to describe something as clearly as possible and thus make our point as effectively as possible.”

Today was the kind of day I should have had the book, 101 American English Idioms. I spent three and one half hours discussing a long letter I had written presenting some important concerns and arguing for a certain viewpoint. I worked hard to communicate my passion without making the reader feel like I had an axe to grind. The person with whom I was conversing was sympathetic to my concerns and wanted to discuss how I could make my letter more “effective” for the group of people I was addressing.

He recognized that I had poured my heart out in this letter. But I also had to make it clear that I was not demanding that we all be on the same page, though I certainly hoped for it. I just didn’t want my concerns to go in one ear and out the other. Interesting idiom.

In the context of an attempt to be persuasive about anything, how does one avoid your words “going in one ear and out the other”? Put another way, if you are trying to explain or even convince another of your viewpoint, how do you make it settle “between the ears”?

Aristotle identifies three modes of speech that must be used in order to persuade well: logos (appeal to reason), ethos (appeal to a way of being), and pathos (appeal to the affections). In my situation, I was shooting for pathos while desiring but not demanding agreement in my use of logos and ethos. In my letter, I chose to tell my story as an invitation to enter into my world, to feel something of my struggle and to empathize with me.

Of course, I also included logical and theological reasons, but my definition of effectiveness included more than just understanding those reasons. I would reckon my letter to be effective if the recipients understood and felt the reasons why I wrote it. Because of the highly charged issue I was addressing, it would require them to discipline their own feelings and resist knee jerk reactions of possible defensiveness, intimidation or outright rejection in order to leave their own world of understanding and enter into my world. I know this is not easy to do. And it leaves me open to the accusation that I have a chip on my shoulder.

So, in the terms of this particular idiom, my definition of “effective” communication is the successful transfer of my story between my own two ears to the space between my listener’s ears. Then perhaps my words won’t go in one ear and out the other. I have no idea if I will be successful, but all I can do right now is ask,

“Please, lend me your ear.”

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