Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
During the month of July, we will run “best of” content from the authors. The following article first appeared on February 20, 2008.
It was my first day of work in a small town not far outside Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, and after three months of intense language training I quickly learned I had studied the wrong language. The people I encountered didn’t speak the language I so arduously studied. Plus, every time I opened my mouth they ridiculed me.
Fortunately, I discovered a wonderful tool for enhancing my language capacity without harming my battered ego. Children. The local kids spoke far better Portuguese than I did. Better still, most of them showed infinite patience when it came to pointing at objects and giving me the Portuguese word for it.
It was during just such a linguistic encounter that I discovered the topic of today’s article. I’d often heard the expression you shouldn’t judge someone until you had walked in his shoes, but the idea contained within this expression never hit home until I received a personal lesson on the topic.
Here’s what happened. An eight-year-old boy who was pointing at objects and giving me the Portuguese nouns for each asked me to teach him the English equivalents. That way we both learned a new word. The first object the boy pointed to was a cobblestone, so I carefully articulated: “Cobblestone.”
“Desculpe!” he proclaimed—suggesting I say the word again.
“Cobblestone,” I repeated, raising my voice a little. With my second pronouncement the boy fell to the ground howling and chortling in a cloud of dust. When he finally gained composure he dashed across the street, gathered a few friends, and then had me pronounce again, “cobblestone.” On cue, his friends broke into peals of laughter.
“Cahb-al-es-tone,” each muttered in a mocking tone, pointing at me and laughing—as if I myself had invented the deeply guttural and apparently hilarious word. Finally, after I’d had my fill of the boy’s mockery, I asked the lad to share the Portuguese word for cobblestone. “These things?” he asked while pointing at the pavers. “They’re called Par-a-lel-la-pee-pee-doos.”
“Par-a-lel-a-pee-pee-doo?” I thought to myself. “And you think the word “cobblestone” is funny?”
It was hard for either of us to know why the other found our word so hysterical. In fact, it’s hard to really understand how anyone else feels about anything—not at least without having lived their life.
For instance, I once read a story wherein a fellow told a dirt-poor friend who desperately wanted to take a girl on a date that he should take her to the grange dance because it would cost only two bits (this was in the early 1940s). For only a quarter, the couple would gain entrance to the co-op and access to snacks, and they’d be able to dance to a live band. Who could turn down such a bargain?
“But I don’t have a quarter,” his friend answered.
I’ve often wondered if my own children would understand that phrase: “But I don’t have a quarter.” They’d probably think the fellow didn’t have change, or he’d left his cash home. Or, that if he didn’t actually own a quarter, he could certainly get one.
Without living the life the impoverished farmer had lived, my children couldn’t possibly know the meaning of these simple words. I have a bit of an idea because I lived under similar circumstances. Like the poor children in a research study conducted over fifty years ago, if a researcher had asked me to draw a picture of a quarter, I would have drawn a big quarter—one that was much larger than the quarter the middle- and upper-class kids in the study had drawn. A quarter meant a lot to me, a boy of no means. To me, it was the size of a hubcap.
In high school my mom gave me a quarter to take the bus home each day. I was supposed to pack my own lunch and ride home on the city bus after school. But in our house the fridge contained things like a boiled cow’s tongue for sandwich makings. I hated cow’s tongue sandwiches. You couldn’t tell who was tasting whom.
Besides, even if mom had stocked the fridge with fixings other than tongue, heart, and entrails, only nerds carried their lunch to school. Cool kids drove their cars off campus to buy scrumptious burgers, shakes, and fries. Well, cool, rich kids did. My family had one old car that had been smacked a lot and then patched up and painted with dark grey primer. Since the car was originally white, everyone called the spotted beast “The Dalmatian.” My dad drove the Dalmatian to work, so I couldn’t cruise to the nearby burger place for lunch. Besides, I had no money for food.
However, not all was lost. I learned that if I walked six blocks from school to the center of town, the bus ride home only cost a dime. That maneuver gave me fifteen cents for lunch. This wasn’t very much money, even in the sixties, but I could buy one thing. Each day I ambled across the street and bought a hockey-puck sized burger. Actually, the item was so small and bereft of meat that it was against the law to call it a burger. Each day I ate a fifteen-cent “Beefy.”
By the end of the day I was famished. I’d walk to the bus stop in the center of town and wait for my ten-cent ride, stomach rumbling all the while. And then things got complicated. The bus stop stood right in front of a bakery which sported, among other tasty delights, a ten-cent chocolate éclair filled with rich vanilla pudding. From inside their glass-cased mini fridge, the éclairs called to me, whispering French enticements: “Eat-tay Moi.”
It was torture. If I gave into the Siren call of the éclair, I’d have to walk home for a mile uphill (mostly in the rain) carrying my books.
Of course, quarters weren’t just for lunches. Quarters could be combined to make larger purchases. For instance, on my mother’s birthday my bus fare came in handy. For two weeks I’d go without lunch and walk home every day so I could buy her the dangly earrings she had hinted she wanted.
After my mother passed away, my wife and I went through her belongings. Tucked neatly away next to the cache of earrings I had given her I found a scrap of paper I had made notes on in 1963. My mom kept the scrap as a memento from my Senior Prom.
On the note was written the following: Orchid-$10; Tickets-$5; Tuxedo-$7; Dinner-$13; Snack after the dance-$5.
I’m sure it wasn’t this financial account that caught my mom’s attention. What inspired her to save the note were the words I wrote at the bottom: Total-$40. Length of prom date-5 hours. Cost per hour-$8.
I had calculated how much the dance cost me per hour! I spent 160 quarters on a dance at a time where each quarter meant lunch and a ride home.
So when I read about the fellow who said he didn’t have a quarter, I think I understood what he meant. He meant he didn’t have a quarter, he wasn’t likely to get a quarter, and if he did get his hands on one, he certainly wouldn’t spend it on a dance.
Of course, I’ll never know for sure. We’re never perfect at guessing others’ meaning. Sometimes a whole life goes into the meaning behind a single word. I saw a quarter as a scarce resource that led to a meal and a ride. My kids see a quarter as something you toss into a change jar so it won’t jingle annoyingly in your pocket.
When you think about it, it’s a wonder we understand anything about each other. It’s a wonder that simple greetings such as, “What’s up?” don’t lead to fist fights—so different can be our take on things. But somehow we get by. Maybe just knowing that we don’t know much about each other helps us get along.
Fortunately, amid all of this confusion and misinterpretation, I do know one thing for certain: “cobblestone” isn’t funny. “Par-a-lel-a-pee-pee-doo”—now that’s funny.