Grist to the Mill

03 April, 2004

LATERAL THINKING (earlier this week)

An important ‘director’-type at a temp job requests two cups of tea – one for him and another for his colleague. Five minutes later I knock on the door and walk straight in. They are discussing papers spread across the desk. The director breaks off conversation to address me and says, expectantly, “We were hoping for yesterday’s standard".

With apologetic tone I reply “Sorry, but I don't have a copy of yesterday's Evening Standard”. Reading their faces and realising my mistake, I add quickly “But I’ve got two cups of tea”, then hurry out of the room. Goodness knows what they’re thinking.

In this context there was no reason to refer to the previous day’s paper, so why the misunderstanding? It’s possible to feel acutely self-conscious in these situations, but this was only part of the reason. The director is Scottish. He has a lovely Edinburgh accent and he emphasised the first syllable of 'standard', ie "yesterday's STANdard", suggesting that ‘standard’ was the key information in the sentence. As he was referring to the quality of the tea, the more natural intonation would have been ‘YESterday’s standard’.

Realising where I'd gone wrong, there was, however, no way to put things right. If I’d explained the nuances of intonation in, (say), three sentences or less, they'd have thought me even weirder. I've learnt to my cost that referring to one's internal governing logic is an ill-advised way to explain a tangential remark - it only gets you in deeper. Too late then. Nothing for it but to scuttle away.

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