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Pardon Moi?!

Even in the Communication Age, sometimes we need a little extra help when it comes to getting the point across.

Just yesterday, my husband and I were THAT couple, having a very private argument in a very not-private place.

We were at the Container Store. Now, please understand that the Container Store is one of my all-time favorite places on the planet. All those beautiful, compact, well thought-out, marvels of modern design exist just for the possibility of making my chaotic home an organized heaven-on-earth. It's enough to launch me on a never-ending daydream. Think, 50 Shades of Uncluttered.

By gosh, I really could keep the kids’ closets organized by season and size just with those little plastic divider doo-hickeys and color-coordinated hangers! My husband’s sock drawer is gonna look hot with his socks all rolled up neatly and nestled into interlocking bamboo trays. Who knew I needed a stackable ‘egg-tainer’ for my deviled eggs? (Somebody, please teach me how to make deviled eggs just so I can get something called an ‘egg-tainer’! Isn’t there something about the word ‘egg-tainer’ that sounds so…sinful?)

Yes, I had been looking forward to this little trip for several days.

My husband, on the other hand, had been anticipating our jaunt like a ‘dead man, walking,’ on his way to paying the price for bludgeoning someone with something called an ‘egg-tainer’ shortly after the last time that person said, “I told you to keep the blue socks in this row, and the black socks in that row!”

Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, here’s the argument short-story. He was trying his hardest to convince me that a Container Store item I wanted to purchase would be merely a small-fix for what we needed, and that our solution might be better found at a place like Home Depot. I was trying to make him understand that buying that under-$10 item would make me happy.

What we were arguing about didn’t matter, it was how we were arguing. Despite our individual opinions making perfect sense to our selves, the logic we each were using seemed illogical to the other. We just kept saying the same things over and over in different ways until we both found our voices rising a little too loudly for the rest of the happy, super-contained crowd at the Container Store.

Yes, I know it’s the age-old, ‘Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars’ thing, where the sexes need to learn to communicate better. Writing this 12 hours later, I’ve got a much better perspective on where we both went wrong (although he was definitely the one who said ‘sorry’ first!). But figuring it out took spending some emotional time apart, all the while sitting right next to one another in the car as we drove away, without buying a thing.

Even after 12 years of marriage (give or take a week), we’re still learning.

It’s not just spouses and partners that need to work out how to get the message across better. So too do siblings, friends, co-workers, neighbors, parents, children, in-laws… ah yes, in-laws.

Apropos to this conversation, my in-laws are visiting from Europe right now. After 12-plus years being married to their son, for me, learning how to communicate with them is still a work in progress. There’s the language barrier, the cultural barrier, and the emotional barrier (have I mentioned that I’m the woman who took their only son away across the sea? And far across the sea is where we keep their only grandchildren?)

Truthfully, things with my in-laws are great. They’ve worked really hard to improve their English, and I’m now about 60 percent fluent in French (I once held my own in a conversation with a coiffure in France to get a haircut—trust me, telling someone how I want my hair cut requires very good communication skills).

As our kids have gotten older, I feel deeply for my in-laws in their effort to make sure they can communicate with the grandchildren they see once a year, twice if we’re lucky. Their struggles have paid off, and they have a lot to show in their close, trans-Atlantic bond with our two children.

I’ve always wanted my own relationship with my mother- and father-in-law to have more emotional depth that comes with nuanced language and conversation. I have to say the three of us actually felt pretty accomplished after our own first disagreement in French where my husband wasn’t around to translate for us—it showed us just how far we’d moved past surface pleasantries and into truly understanding each other better. With the help of Skype, iPad FaceTime and the like, it’s made it even easier.

But even communicating with modern tools has its ups and downs. With my son away at camp this summer, we’ve only been able to talk with him by phone three or four times in seven weeks. Sure, we saw him mid-summer for visiting day, but when your first baby leaves the nest for the first time, and you don’t know how he’s doing day-to-day, it can be excruciating.

With all the activities at camp, it’s hard for kids to get homesick. But to make sure some connection with home is maintained, the entire family takes part in the Letter Brigade. Everyone, from distant cousins to grandparents, 5th grade friends and even great grandparents, enlists in Mission: Written Umbilical Cord to ensure the child doesn’t spend a day feeling neglected at mail delivery time.

Well, my first baby came home yesterday, a little grimy and 3-inches taller. After we’d tucked him safely into bed, making sure he was freshly scrubbed and well-fed (he got so skinny, didn’t they feed him?), I went through all the letters and emails he received at camp during his two months away. Tucked amongst the weighty pile, next to postcards and letters and messages from here in the U.S., were several emails and cards from his great-grandmother in France, Mémé Paulette.

Sweetly, Paulette—who speaks no English but loves her great-grandchildren fiercely, no matter in what language—has become an avid Google Translate user. If it took being an early hi-tech adapter to make sure she could communicate with her arrière petit fils, then that’s what she’d do. She wrote all her cards and letters in English to make sure it was clear to him that he was on her mind and in her heart every day. All she had to do was write what she wanted to say in French, and the website would tell her what to write in English so that he’d understand. Easy, organized, hi-tech and happy.

(Sigh.) Things would be SO much easier if only Google Translate offered language choice options called ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’!

Sarah Pinkham August 16, 2012 at 12:40 PM
Heather Keep working on your French but talking toyour hair style-coiffure-will not help you as much as talking to your hair stylist- coiffeur or coiffeuse.
Heather Borden Herve August 19, 2012 at 03:15 PM
Mon dieu, Sarah, you're right! And I can't even say that one was my husband's fault. ;)

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