Not Much Has Changed Since “Cool Hand Luke”

I rarely use my phone as a phone, and when I do actually talk on it, it’s a quick call when someone hasn’t replied to a text, or to call home and ask if we need bread, or milk, or ibuprofen.

I just don’t like talking on the phone at length. As a writer and part-time introvert I prefer to communicate in writing, whether by note, letter, email or text. This lets me think about what I want to say and, even more important, edit myself.

During my 12 years as state agency spokesperson, I had innumerable telephone conversations with reporters ranging from small-town Texas weeklies and the major Texas dailies to the New York Times and the Times of London and, as my former boss used to say, I never got the agency in trouble. I knew that there was no such thing as “off the record.” Occasionally—extremely rarely—I  would talk to a reporter only by phone, if an issue was very sensitive and I didn’t want a written record. Toward the end of my career more and more reporters emailed requests for information instead of calling, a trend I appreciated because I was able to research the questions and document my replies. (I have the dubious distinction of being dubbed “Texas Medical Board SpokesBABE” by none other than Rush Limbaugh, who picked up a quote from another source attributed to me, adding the condescending “title.” I never actually spoke to him, and in fact I was on vacation when this happened and I heard about it via a call from a co-worker as my husband and I neared Denver. I later decided to embrace the title and added it to my name outside my office door.)

In her books “You Just Don’t Understand” and “Talking from Nine to Five,” author Deborah Tannen explained differences in communications styles based on gender, age, culture and other factors. As a professional communicator I considered it my responsibility to figure out how best to communicate effectively and appropriately.

One boss was a former military man, and very straight-arrow. I’m pretty left-brained myself but have learned that sometimes I am better at solving difficult problems using right-brain exercises. Once I had an enormously complex project—the reorganization of an entire filing and storage system—which I was unable to figure out using left-brain linear thinking. So I used the “splat” method to stimulate creativity. Using huge sheets of Post-it easel paper, I splatted all the elements needed to solve the problem and looked for patterns. Then I was able to organize everything into a logical, linear system. But I worried that my boss would walk in and have a coronary because it was a messy process and I don’t think he dealt well with messiness. It must have worked because he gave me a raise just as I was about to resign, and I used that to negotiate a higher salary in the new job.

In my years as a communications professional—and even now in retirement—I have tried to use the preferred communications style of friends and family members. With my daughters, I’ve learned, text messages are the best for immediate needs and email for everything else. My husband wouldn’t know what to do with a text, so he gets a call or a voice message. I have many friends with whom it’s best to communicate via Facebook, but that’s not the best way to reach my sister or sister-in-law. I email or call them. My closest friends get individual treatment—a phone call or an email, depending on the preferred style. I have a couple of friends with whom I actually do have lengthy telephone conversations, almost against my will, but I care about them so that’s what I do.

But for all my presumed skill as a communicator, and for all the fabulous technology we have—email, Facebook, texting, Skype, notes on the fridge to, God knows, smoke signals,  it all still sometimes breaks down. The other day I texted my daughter to ask her when she would be picking up my granddaughter. Not getting a reply in an hour, I tried calling her. Her phone (an iPhone—she no longer has a home phone) went straight to voicemail so I left a message. She also called me on both our landline (my husband gave me the message) and my cell, which I did not hear ring. So in an hour and a half, with two attempts in each direction, we made absolutely no connection. I finally reached her on her phone and took Chloe home, where Cori showed me on her phone that neither my text nor voicemail were received. How does one explain that? Were the cell towers on coffee break?

So 45 years after “Cool Hand Luke,” Strother Martin’s words are as true as ever, for all our best efforts:

“What we’ve got here is … failure to communicate.” 

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One response to “Not Much Has Changed Since “Cool Hand Luke””

  1. rwhyan says :

    I had to watch this film in history class once and I fell in love. Great film!

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