In my last post, I told the story about meeting former President Jimmy Carter at one of my bookings. I was later reflecting about how fortunate I was to have met a U.S. President, something that a very, very small percentage of Americans are every lucky enough to do.
But then I got to thinking about how both of my parents had also each met a U.S. President—and how incredibly unlikely that was. We are not a political family, so the odds of any of our family members meeting or interacting with a U.S. President—let alone three Presidents—is pretty darn small.
So which Presidents did my parents meet? My Dad met President Harry Truman. My father was injured in World War II, having lost both his left arm and left leg while in combat in Europe. While my Dad was recuperating at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, DC, the White House extended an invitation for the hospital to send over a group of wounded soldiers for the President to greet and thank them for their service.
Once the soldiers arrived, President and Mrs. Truman came outside and the soldiers went through a line to meet them. My Dad had not been fitted with a prosthetic leg yet, so he was in a wheelchair, being pushed by another soldier. As my Dad approached Truman, the President shook Dad’s hand and asked him, “Where did you lose your leg, son?” And Dad said, “Below the knee, sir.”
And Truman laughed and said, “No, son. Where did you lose your leg?” And my Dad laughed and said, “Like I said, below the knee, sir”, and pointed to his stump that was covered by his pants leg.
At this point, this conversation was now holding up the line, as Truman and my Dad were laughing—but neither one realizing what the other one was asking or answering.
You see, in my Dad’s world, all conversations about war injuries were from the perspective of rehab and recovery. The scope of the injury was based on which limb(s) were affected, where on the limb they were affected, and so on.
In the President’s world, all conversations about war injuries were based on where geographically the injury had taken place. Hence, the communication breakdown.
Fortunately, my Dad quickly figured out what was happening and said, “Oh, in Germany, sir. In Germany.” They laughed again and the line continued to move again. But it’s easy to see how an innocent question of “Where did you lose your leg, son?” could be interpreted two totally different ways.
It reminds me of the time I asked my wife, Susan, if she wanted me to get tickets for us to see ‘Chicago.’ She said, “That would be awesome!” And I said, “Great! They go on sale tomorrow and I can get us really good seats. And let me tell you, that will definitely ‘Make Me Smile’.”
She looked at me with a puzzled look. “Yeah, I’m sure it will make me smile, too.”
“No, you know—‘Make Me Smile’—it was one of their hits.”
“I don’t remember that song. Is it in Act 1 or Act 2?”
At this point, I realized something was amiss. Yes, we both wanted to see ‘Chicago’—I wanted to see the band ‘Chicago’ and Susan wanted to see the Broadway musical ‘Chicago’. They were both booked at the same venue, right around the same time. Rut ro!
We quickly figured out that neither of us had a big desire to see the band/show that the other one of us didn’t think it was. So we opted not to go see either show. Fortunately, we figured this out before I bought tickets for the wrong show, whichever one that turned out to be.
But it proves how easy it is for there to be lapses in communication—even with what arguably should be very straightforward questions. (“Where did you lose your leg?” “Do you want me to get tickets to see ‘Chicago’?”)
The key to preventing this from happening is to always try to put context and clarity into your communications. Just because something is crystal clear in your head doesn’t mean that it’s got the same meaning in the other person’s head. You can easily remedy this by substituting casual communication with intentional communication.
In my opinion, it is better to send a nine-sentence e-mail explaining something in more detail than you might think is necessary, than to have an e-mail that says, “OK. I’m in.” Yes, people might roll their eyes when they see the nine sentences in your e-mail—but the net result is that there is rarely, if ever, confusion about what you are trying to say.
And if you’re wondering which President my Mother met…..well, you’ll have to wait until the next blog post.