Tom went to see the doctor last week. Nothing special, you understand, nothing life threatening, nothing important. Just that he couldn’t breath, he had these stabbing pains in his chest, he was getting cramp in his left leg, he had a sore throat, his nose was blocked, he couldn’t hear low piano notes or what people behind him on the train were saying, floaters were interfering with vision out of his left eye, his sleeping pills weren’t working and he wanted to commit suicide. You know, the usual sort of stuff that prompts one’s visits to the doc. So there he was, alone in the waiting room, leafing through a magazine, reading all about Princess Alicia’s new plans now her husband’s in prison, and how some Hollywood woman is doing a deep sea diving course in preparation for her latest role as a foetus, when suddenly, in walked this man who looked for all the world like Jordi Pujol, late president of the Catalan parliament. He looked around, and then plonked himself down on a sofa on the other side of the room.
He was about one metre sixty, almost bald, and he had lots of facial tics. In fact, he had a lot of facial hair too – Tom could see all this vibrant hair springing out of his nose and ears, as if to mock his pink bald pate, and it reminded him of the last time he’d spent some time in New York. After a few weeks getting disapproving looks from strangers (you have to be doing something very wrong to attract any attention at all in New York), Tom’s wife persuaded him to go a barbers and while he was waiting for his turn, sitting among a talkative, friendly bunch of aging American men, he noticed that the barber took more time carefully trimming his clients’ nose and ear hair than he did cutting the hair on the top of their heads. Tom made a mental note to add this custom to his annotated version of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions list, which he used as supplementary material for the cross cultural awareness unit in Headway Intermediate, but he’d since completely forgotten about it, until the day at the doctor’s.
We’re back at the doctor’s. Tom watched the man sitting opposite him through the fish tank, that obligatory bit of furniture in doctors waiting rooms which gives you a good idea how much you’re going to pay for the visit. This one was three metres long, polished steel framework, sparsely sprinkled with unlikely-looking fish swimming around in ice blue water, bubbles of air ascending from the inevitable chest of doubloons next to the sunken galleon. “Good doctoral thesis right there”, thought Tom, “fish tanks as predictors of patient satisfaction”.
Jordi (for Tom was by now convinced that it was he) was looking through the aquarium in Tom’s direction. Tom, fidgeting awkwardly on his seat, couldn’t avoid Jordi’s gaze. Every few seconds Jordi’s left eye closed in a protracted, slow-motion wink, like one of those lizardy predators with the long tongues you see David Attenborough stroking on telly. Tom couldn’t help staring back; it was like he was being hypnotised. The eyelid went slowly down, closed, there was an uneasy pause, and suddenly it sprang open again. OMG, Tom thought, any minute now his tongue’s going to whip out and I’ll find myself rolled up in a carpet of goo, flying through the air, horizontal to the ground, spinning towards his open gob.
The tension mounted. Over there was this short little guy still working him with the eye, cheeks blowing in and out, hands nervously twitching up to re-adjust strands of hair; and here was Tom, gasping for breath, leg jigging up and down, the pains in his chest getting worse and worse, waiting for the moment when he’d be eaten alive.
“It’s a beautiful day”, Tom ventured.
Now what? If he’d been a salesman he could have taken a vacuum cleaner out of his briefcase and shown Jordi how much dirt he could scrape off the sofa onto a clean white demonstration hanky, but there was no such easy way in. How to break the ice, ease the tension, get past the block, open the gate and amble through into the domain of easy daily discourse, relax in mutually-affirming meadows of inconsequential intercourse, settle in to savannas of social chit chat, graze carelessly on gossip of topics of the day?
Unable to think of any better strategy, Tom tried a few doctor doctor jokes on him.
“Have you heard these?” Tom asked him.
Doctor doctor, I think I’m a pair of curtains. Pull yourself together! says the doc with a chuckle.
Nobody will talk to me. Next! cries the doc gleefully.
I think I’m a schizophrenic. Oh yes, says the doc, and what’s your problem?
Nothing! Jordi showed not a glimmer of interest; the fish glided past, time dragged on. How long could this awful unease go on? What could he say? Which is when he had his epiphany. To be honest, Tom was quite used to ephinanies, he got them almost as often as he got false heart attacks, and, like the heart attacks, they never actually led to much, but anyway, it seemed like a real flash of revelation at the time.
Tom had been groping towards a more lexical approach to his teaching, but he hadn’t quite got the hang of it, he couldn’t find the glue for all these useful bits and pieces, or to put it another way, he still wasn’t seeing the whole pineapple. And now the epiphany, the realisation that the glue, the pineapple, was social embarrassment. All over the planet and round the clock countless millions of people suffered moments like the one he was going through right now. Rather than look for valid criteria for selecting lexical chunks based on frequency, saliency, any of that stuff, all you had to do was to concentrate on the chunks most likely to help you overcome social embarrassment. To back up “Could I have a coffee, please?’” you’d have the sequel: “I’m so sorry, I thought you were a waiter”. Rather than just “Hi there, my name’s Sandy”, you’d teach “Goodness me! Is that the time?”as well. Think of how much could be achieved by banishing social embarrassment! World peace would be assured once Donald and Teresa and Vladimir, and Angela and Xi and the rest had been through the right English training programme, and the same progress could be expected in business, science, education, and, indeed, all aspects of social life too.
“Dig Yourself Out Of A Hole English” (DYOOAH English) he’d call it. It would concentrate on conversational moves, be stuffed full of lexical chunks and prefabricated whatsits, starting, naturally, with conversation starters. Why just the other day he was looking at web sites offering the very thing. He quickly found the 250 Conversation Starters web site on his phone and he was off:
Hi, I’m Tom. What type of phone is that?
Or: Do you sleep with a stuffed animal?
Or: How often do you shower?
Or: What’s your worst nightmare?
Brilliant! You’d have to be careful, of course, For example, questions about pets aren’t safe when visiting Barcelona, because “pet” in Catalan is “fart”.
Conversation starters didn’t have to be questions, though. You could kick off with a compliment, couldn’t you.
- Nice minimalist tiara you’re wearing tonight ma’am,
- I just love your flowery flip flops sweetie,
- Banging nose tattoo bro,
that sort of thing. Still, even these could go wrong. “Congratulations!” you say, throwing a winning smile at the visiting CEO’s tummy, only for her to tell you “I’m not pregnant”.
It was becoming clearer: all moves could fail, there were always pitfalls, chances to dig yourself further into the mess. So you’d have to do a flow diagram, then work out a simple IFTTT (If This Then That, do keep up) ap. You’re at a wine tasting and you say “I’m getting vanilla”. If the sommelier says “That’s the water – the wine’s in the other glass”, what do you say? You’re on a tour through a factory and you ask one of the workers what she’s holding. If she says “Cheese and ham sandwich”, what do you say? By now Tom was lost, chasing down one false trail after another.
What was that great rejoinder Winston Churchill made at a dinner party?
Lady Astor: Winston, you’re drunk.
Churchill: And you Madam, are ugly, but I’ll be sober tomorrow!
And what was the famous misleading guide book advice for visitors to London?
Try the famous echo in the British Library Reading Room.
What a shame that they’d moved the library; it had been such a great place to read; he still had his card. Still, the new building was very nice, good cheap restaurant, …. The epiphany had passed and the Dig Yourself Out approach to ELT passed with it. Next thing Tom knew, he was being ushered in to meet the doc and he never got to ask Jordi if he slept with a stuffed animal.