Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Voice of Command

I had an optometrist appointment. Unless you're lucky enough to have never needed corrective lenses, you know the drill. While I'm seated in the chair, the optometrist projects one line of an eye chart on the opposite wall. There's a contraption in front of me like something out of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and as the optometrist flips levers to change the arrangement of lenses in front of my face, she asks, "Which is better ... one ... or two?"

I'm concentrating on the rows of letters with Aviatrix-like intensity, tossing back "one," "two," "one," as quickly and efficiently as I can. It's a task I've been given. It matters to how well I'll be able to do my job. I take it seriously.

She twizzles a big dial and creates a whole new lens configuration, then projects a different line of letters. "Can you make out any of those at all, even by guessing?"

I focus for a moment and then I realize I know the whole line, but it's cheating. The letters are a repeat. "I have this one memorized from a few minutes ago. Show me another one the same size."

"Please!" she says, like a mother prompting a child for correct manners, but she's quite offended. "I'm the one who gives the orders around here."

I apologized right away, then thought about it some more while I was having my pupils dilated, and my retinas scrutinized, so I could elaborate on my apology. "It's no excuse for rudeness, and I'm really sorry, I think it's like when I'm flying, and I'm focused on the task, the language is very terse. 'Flap ten' or 'say wind' or 'pull up and go around'. It's done for clarity and efficiency, but you are right, it is rude in any other context."

I think she grasped the idea, because she then described an analogous situation. She had been observing an operation on one of her patients, and the surgeon, whom she knew well and had always thought a well mannered person, was being so rude to the OR nurses that she was shocked, but the nurses didn't seem to mind.

I would have nodded, but I still had my chin wedged in the Orwellian optometry device. "They understand. It's the same kind of thing. It's just the way people speak in that environment." What, she thinks operating theatres are like M*A*S*H? I thought that the surgeon intent on the operation and spitting one word commands like "scalpel!" was such a cliché that everyone knew it. In this case it would have saved a lot of aggravation and hurt feelings if I had said, "Could you please show me another one the same size? I can't tell if I can see it, or just recognize it from before."

I have to admit that sometimes I get fed up by how verbose people can be when they ask you to do something. "Aviatrix, bring me a case of oil from maintenance," is not a rude request. I think I already blogged on hearing a flight attendant explain to another that, "The pilots seem rude, but it's just the way they talk. They talk to each other like that too."

The good news is, my eyes are just fine.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sometimes you can be terse and polite at the same time, as in "request runway 32" -- "request" is our word for "pretty, pretty please".