Our oldest grandchild, Abby, is only a year away from college. She’s been looking at various options, hoping to find somewhere she could enjoy her stay while getting a good education. She recently visited Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville. Their brochure has an impressive list of available degrees. I learned there’s a major in Rhetoric.
That was a bit of a shock to me. I’m accustomed to hearing the term rhetoric used in a critical manner. It often describes the rather meaningless jargon of politicians, as in, “That’s just a bunch of rhetoric!” But I did some research and found it’s a respectable word, closely related to communication.
Good communication seems in short supply on many fronts. From politics to private matters, from race to religion, from neighbors to North Korea, there’s plenty of room for improvement. I don’t know if there are any jobs for Rhetoric Majors, but it sure seems like there is a need for some good communicators.
Language can be a barrier to communication. Several decades ago my wife, Jane, and I, along with our young triplets, went to Cordele to eat at a Chinese restaurant. We ordered by pointing at the numbers. The nice young lady who waited on us was very quiet. We assumed that her English was limited. She mostly smiled and nodded.
There was no dessert listed on the menu, but we asked if they offered any. She brought us some delicious little balls of cake that had been deep fried and coated with powdered sugar. They were exceptional. We gained a new appreciation for authentic Chinese desserts.
No one in our family speaks Chinese. Jane, however, has a master’s degree in education. She was designated to find out more about this splendid dish from another culture. She spoke slowly and with extra volume. We are firm believers that adding volume greatly enhances interpretation. Jane’s approach, in my opinion, was perfect.
“What – do – you – call – these – little – round – fried – pastries?” asked Jane.
The young Chinese lady gave a slow and deliberate response. “Donuts,” she said.
“Donuts?” Jane asked, with a considerable degree of surprise.
“Donuts,” she confirmed, her pleasant expression punctuating her familiar nod.
We returned on many occasions. After our meals, we would ask with exaggerated flair for donuts. We were not fluent in each other’s language, but smiles don’t need interpretation.
Another barrier to effective communication is hearing loss. My cousin, Joyce, told me a few years ago that her husband, Ben, needed to do something about his hearing.
Several families of barn swallows had nested on their porch. The little birds are quite charming until they build their mud nests and begin raising their young. Swallows have a penchant for foul etiquette, rendering porches almost useless for human purposes. They are protected by federal law, and apparently know this. They are relentless in homesteading and almost impossible to legally displace.
It was about supper time as Joyce walked by a window that gave her a clear view of their porch. Ben was standing at the kitchen counter with a paper plate and two slices of bread.
“Ben,” she asked with weeks of pent up frustration, “do you think those birds are ever going to leave our porch?”
Ben held up a dinner knife so she could see it. He said, “I’ve already put mayonnaise on my bread. “
Joyce just smiled and said, “Okay.”
Some communication problems can be helped with hearing aids or interpreters. Those are the easy ones. The tough ones involve attitudes, opinions, prejudice, and personal interests. It’s hard to communicate with people we don’t know, people that in some cases we don’t even like. Maybe it would help if we try to think of them as our neighbors. That’s not rhetoric. I found that idea in a Good Book that I read. Luke 10:25-37.