Writing the Wrong

Writing the Wrong

For the past 8 years, I’ve had a real lukewarm response to writing. Some people talk about having a love/hate relationship. Mine’s been more hate/hate.

With the way I’ve turned to other media (i.e. distracting myself with podcasts), it’s weird to think it wasn’t always like that. I really did like writing before. Hell, I liked it so much that I minored– and for a minute, thought about double majoring– in it. Guys, I liked writing so much I tried to run a monthly writing contest modeled after the music contest Dwelling of Duels.

So what changed? What’s the significance of that 8 year mark?

Well, 2009 was the year I graduated and started my life in Japan. I’ve shared plenty of stories about the growth that provided. But, I guess that sort of nostalgic reminiscing blinded me to how it warped my writing.

I’d blog to keep people updated. Then, it shifted to teaching (because I was a teacher, duh). And now, a big bulk of my posts are basically summaries of lesson notes.

All of this is information heavy. In other words, it’s not fun. You could never, ever, ever associate fun with the writing I do now.

No wonder I hate it. I can read a lot of non-fiction, but that’s not what I like to write. I loved making shit up. Fiction was king. I could draw from real-life experiences, of course. Sometimes the inspirations of my tales would be blatantly obvious, but that’s still a key difference.

Writing to educate isn’t a problem necessarily, but writing with the sole focus to inform comes across like a lame lecture.

Informative, perhaps. Helpful, I hope. But when you deliver material in that way, it’s a drag, man. And if I’m not having fun with it, how could that not have an influence on the readers.

I look at my peers: poets, screenwriters, editors, and wordsmiths. They’re in their element. They enjoy what they do. I think even on my best day, they’d still kick my ass.

Back when I was in school, looking at my peers could be a downer. It’d be too easy to notice the gap in skills. And again, that will forever ring true to this day.

The only difference is back then I didn’t care. When I wasn’t poetic enough, I’d craft realistic dialogue. When I didn’t have the most beautiful way to describe the scenery, I’d create a crazy cliffhanger. When I didn’t know what to write, I’d still be able to come up with plot twist after plot twist after plot twist.

And that, wow, that was damn good fun. Even if I was scared at being inept and criticized, I’d be happy to rework it because the material itself was fun. It’s the total opposite of today when I write because “I guess I should” or I hit “publish”  because I’m giving up on a post.

I now recognize that my lack of enthusiasm came from writing the wrong things.

I’m real excited to write again! No more ham-fisted lessons. Time to get wacky.


[Case Study] English Miscommunication at the Supermarket

[Case Study] English Miscommunication at the Supermarket

One of my clients asked me to review something that happened to him over the weekend. I think this situation serves as a good case study and follow up to my last blog post: Unexpected Word Flow.

Reminder to non-native English speakers: when you encounter a situation of miscommunication or misunderstanding, it’s not always because of your English. In fact, sometimes it’s more of just a clarification than a real misunderstanding.

Take my client “Ben” for example. Over the weekend, he was at the supermarket. He needed help finding something and asked a person,

“Do you work here?”

Ben wanted me to teach a better way to ask that because the person showed some hesitation.

Well, are there other expressions we could use? Sure. The English language is always going to give you more options (probably too many). But is there a real need for a change? In this case, no.

Before we break down the phrasing, let’s go over the context:

  • at the supermarket
  • need help
  • approaching an employee

It could’ve turned out this person didn’t even work there, which would explain his/her reluctance. But if it really was an employee, why would they show hesitation?

After all, Ben was just needing help. And it’s true, customers will ask an employee for help. But do you know the other most common situation customers approach employees? To complain.

So if we put ourselves in the employees’ shoes:

  1. I see a customer approaching me.
  2. I had to deal with 5 complaints earlier in the day.
  3. I’m scared this is going to be another complain.

I have a strong hunch it was probably along those lines, but that’s just one possibility among many. Maybe Ben just walked up to a lazy worker. Or maybe that employee had just wrapped up their shift.

Again, the reminder here: it ain’t always about your English.

Unexpected Word Flow

Unexpected Word Flow

“What a terrible question! Look at how they worded this! What does it even mean?”

My girlfriend was taking an online survey and wanted backup in processing this question: “How often does your cat use the litter box?”

  1. 25% of the time
  2. 50% of the time
  3. 75% of the time
  4. 100% of the time

“Just what exactly is it trying to ask me?”

I told her that I think it’s trying to figure out how well-trained your cat is at using the litter box (i.e. s/he goes where s/he’s supposed to, or s/he makes a mess on the floor).

“Oh? Is it? Well, pft, what a poorly-worded question!”

And it kind of is, but it kind of isn’t… (well, okay, it totally is but I’m using this as a setup to make a point). Sometimes when there’s misunderstandings and miscommunication, it’s not actually because something is poorly-worded. If you go back to the original question, “How often does your cat use the litter box?”, there’s no grammatical errors.

Even if you had an accent, the question could be heard well enough. So why then all the confusion? That question plays against our expectations.

If you’re trying to figure out is your cat pees on the floor or not, how would you ask it?

  • Does your cat pee/ on the floor (a lot)?
  • Does your cat pee/poo outside the litter box?
  • Is your cat well-trained at using the litter box?

There’s plenty of other variations, but those would be the most “immediate” to mind. When you stray away from the typical kind of talk (i.e. the expected flow), the listener is going to be caught by surprise. As a result, they’ll second-guess if they heard it correctly.

So when they ask you to repeat, it’s just to stall so they can process “Did I really hear what I thought I heard?”

Here’s another example. When you meet someone, what’s one of the first things you might say?

  • Hey, how’s it going?
  • How are you?
  • Long time no see?

Again, there’s a whole list of other phrases. Depending on the closeness with the individual, you’re more likely to stray away from that sort of small talk.

Imagine if you said something like, “How’s your Mom?”– wouldn’t that be kind of weird? Maybe you’ve known your friend’s mother for a long time. Maybe you genuinely just want to know how she’s doing. But hearing that as the first thing coming out of your mouth, the listener will hesitate. The listener will probably ask you to repeat.

Not because there’s anything grammatically incorrect. Not because of the wording either. The confused reaction is caused by a non-typical flow of conversation.

So for my non-native speaker clients and readers:

Next time you’re having a conversation and someone asks you to repeat? Stop automatically assuming it’s because of your English. Stop immediately thinking you made a mistake. Cut that shit out.

It’s annoying. This sort of situation can happen to anybody.

It doesn’t do you any good to automatically assume you’re being deficient, and then take a blow to your self-esteem. In the next post, I’ll point out how native speakers can experience the same exact thing. In the meantime, you can check CollegeHumor‘s take:

Tale of Heroes: Dr. Alma Corley

Tale of Heroes: Dr. Alma Corley

I’ve been blessed with lots of role models in my life. They have shaped me in so many ways to be who I am today. 

This morning I found out that one of old college professors had passed away at 83. Right now, I don’t have a more eloquent way to write my reaction. I’m just sad. But wow– if she was 83… and I had her classes ten years ago– she was kicking so much ass at 73!

Dr. Alma Corley is no doubt one of the greatest of all time when it comes to life, lessons, and life lessons. For those who didn’t know her, here’s what you missed out on.

The Legend

I thought about opening with a quip that Dr. Corley was an undisputed legend in the field, but sadly that isn’t true. In fact, there were plenty of students who really didn’t care for her at all.

Their thought was “she’s too old”– and by that, she couldn’t stick to the syllabus. She would just ramble about seemingly unrelated things.

Those classmates of mine were chumps.

So maybe she didn’t deliver the class material in cookie cutter, bite-size pieces, but that’s because Dr. Corley was a story driven speaker. I think people got annoyed because they didn’t know how to take notes from a story. But if you just followed along and listened, you didn’t need to take notes. That story would be stuck in your head for the rest of your life.

Once, she shared a story about helping Dick Van Dyke escape the press and paparazzi. Dr. Corley was able to pull him out the mob and guide him to a secret exit. And right when they were saying their goodbyes– damn, she realized she didn’t have her business card on her.

Wouldn’t that have been something? Being able to make that impression on Dick Van Dyke and give him my business card?

On the surface, that just sounds like a PR lesson to always carry a business card. But really, Dr. Corley was letting us know that in moments of greatness, you can still come up short. And when it’s something you could’ve avoided, you’re going to have to live with that.

I think her out-rightness and frankness was another reason Dr. Corley rubbed some people the wrong way.

I remember it was the first day of one of her classes. Things were pretty low key. It was a small class, so we were just introducing ourselves to everyone. We shared our names and one “fun fact”. One girl revealed she was adopted.

Dr. Corley immediately asked, “Are you in contact with your birth parents?”

The girl said no. It was clear she wasn’t interested in connecting with them either. Good for her, I thought.

Dr. Corley continued on, “But wouldn’t you want to know about their health history?”

Oh my goodness, Dr. Corley. The room turned tense. The girl just tried to laugh it off. And on the surface, this all seems like the ramblings of some crotchety old person. Like, oh great, here you go lecturing me without knowing me. Except, Dr. Corley added one more line:

If it were me, I would want to know.

It wasn’t meant to be condescending. There wasn’t condemnation. She was just speaking– out-rightly and frankly– from empathy.

Make no mistake, I’m definitely a full on Dr. Corley mark. I don’t share these stories to make any excuses or try to change anyone’s mind. If you weren’t, aren’t, or never will be a fan, that’s okay– especially because Dr. Corley is A-OK with that.

After class one time, I remember asking her about student pressure. A couple of students were pissed about the way she graded a test. She gave them time during class to openly dispute it, but found ways to break apart their logic and maintain the given grade. It seemed most of the class was on the student side.

“If they already feel this way about you so early on, isn’t this going to cause more problems down the line?” To which she replied:

I don’t care what they think about me. They’re welcome to think whatever they’d like.

Total badass. To this day, I’ve yet to reach that level of unwavering belief and self-efficacy.

The Impact

Dr. Corley taught me that not all lessons have good stories, but good stories have some of the best lessons. And when you can teach by talking in terms of a narrative, people are going to be better off. Those are the kinds of stories that stick.

She once told me, “You’ll do fine, Mr. Dao. I’m not worried about you.” And to hear that from someone who was so opinionated and sure of herself? Man, it felt like the best compliment in the world.

On graduation day, I remember swinging by each professor’s office for one last round of learning and advice. I wondered if she had anything left to impart.

If you know what you want (in life), you better go and do it.

R.I.P. Dr. Corley.