I asked him, "How long are you staying for this time. It'd be nice if you could give us a clue when you'll be back."
"One day," he said, with his head behind the fridge door.
I took that as a definite response, meaning just one day. I thought he'd only stay overnight and be back by tomorrow. I was surprised, but quite pleased. "Good. Thanks."
Half an hour later, we were parked in front of his mate's driveway, and I said, "I'll see you tomorrow then."
He blinked at me and started protesting. "No you won't. I told you, I haven't planned when I'll be back."
Then it dawned on me that he didn't mean those words, one day, the way I'd chosen to take them. He meant them in a vague, cheeky, "When you see me," sort of way.
How easily people can misunderstand each other, even when plain English is spoken clearly and not misheard. I've often thought such communication gaps are a bit of a joke, but my little incident this week showed me how easily they can happen. I started thinking how much I've enjoyed similar misunderstandings when they happen in stories.
I remember reading 'Ramona the Pest' to my children, about a little girl who was proudly starting school. Her teacher, Miss Binney, was assigning seats and said, 'Ramona, you can sit here for the present.' The young heroine was certain the teacher was promising her a gift-wrapped type of present if she remained seated, and it led to lots of mix-ups at recess time when her friends wanted her to come and play. 'No, if I stay here, Miss Binney's going to give me a present, and I can't wait to see what it is. She's taking a long time though.'
Another favourite character of mine was good old Amelia Bedelia, the weird maid who always took things literally. Her employer once asked her to draw the curtains at noon, for example, and came home to find hot afternoon sunlight pouring in on her expensive fabric upholstery. It turned out Amelia had executed a perfect sketch of the open curtains and coloured it in. Several times, Amelia Bedelia only managed to keep her job because she was such a good cook.
Some historical misunderstandings have had far more serious repercussions. Jesus' disciples assumed that He was planning to inaugurate a different type of kingdom to the one He really meant. As we know, Judas decided to take matters in his own hands, when he got tired of waiting for the type of political coup he was expecting.
And many of us have surely read passages from books and said, 'Oh, so that's what it means! I thought it was something entirely different.' For example, when we read, 'Delight in the Lord and He'll give you the desires of your heart,' some of us might choose to believe that means Ferraris, mansions and publishing contracts. I remember the sense it made when I realised the alternative meaning. When we genuinely delight in the Lord, our hearts and longings will be changed in accordance with what He desires for us. He gives us not the mere objects of the desires, but shapes the desires themselves.
I wonder if misunderstandings happen more often than we may realise. As English is a crazy old language in many ways, I'm sure they do. Not only do some words have more than one meaning, but they are often fluid and not fixed, as we might expect. I'm often interested watching my kids and nephews communicate with my parents. One of the boys may make a statement such as, 'That's really sick!' and their grandparents believe that they are expressing criticism instead of admiration.
Have my examples of this phenomenon sparked off any memories of your own? I'd be interested to hear them. That in itself may be another example. One man may ask, 'Have you heard the news?' and his friend will reply, 'Yes,' meaning that he's read it on Facebook or Reddit, and then the first man will wonder who told him. Where does it end?
Paula Vince is a South Australian author of contemporary, inspirational fiction. She lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills, with its four distinct seasons, and loves to use her environment as settings for her stories. Her novel, 'Picking up the Pieces' won the religious fiction section of the International Book Awards in 2011, and 'Best Forgotten' was winner of the CALEB prize the same year. She is also one of the four authors of 'The Greenfield Legacy', Australia's first and only collaborated Christian novel. Her most recent novel, 'Imogen's Chance' was published April 2014. For more of Paula's reflections, please visit her blog, It Just Occurred to Me. You may also like to visit her book review blog, The Vince Review where she also interviews other authors.