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Oh dear, my grandmother ate the lawnmower

Oh dear, my grandmother ate the lawnmower

First published in The Star, The Workplace, Monday June 25 2007
Copyright © 2007  Tessa Silberbauer
Used with permission of the author:
Author: Tessa Silberbauer
Life management trainer

19 November 2007


“.. And we sincerely hope that it can brings you wonderful comfort.” – User manual

Every now and again, in everyone’s life, there comes a time when there is nothing to do, and no-one around to do it with.  In these idle moments, I sometimes amuse myself by reading translated user manuals, and trying to make up more nonsensical sentences in that style.  

It’s something of a guilty pleasure: I can only speak one language and although my Afrikaans friends are too polite to say so, I have a suspicion that I am worse than the manual writers.  I have been known to say things like, "My aunt ate the lawnmower," with an innocently earnest expression.  So it’s usually an exercise in laughing at myself more than anything else.

But the quote does illustrate one very important part of communication wonderfully.  If you want to explain your point of view effectively to anyone, knowing what you want to say is only the first step.  Knowing how to say it is just as vital.

An easy example is travelling directions.  Some of us navigate by street names; some of us by landmarks.  Others use a combination.  But let a street-namer tell a landmarker directions, or the other way around, and usually they’re lost before they’ve started driving again, because they are unable to form a mental picture of the route. But if you can match your directions with the driver’s style, you have made it easier for them to remember the directions without getting confused, and it’s far more likely that they will find their way eventually.

When you talk to someone – anyone – the technical process is actually very complex.  You first have to build what you’re trying to say in your mind, creating a mental picture, landscape or concept.  Then, you have to find the words that will translate what you’re holding in your mind to the other person.   That person hears your words, and tries to match them to the ideas they already have.  Most of this is subconscious.   Whether you communicate successfully depends on how well you harmonize your way of thinking to the other person’s.  In the above example, a person who thinks in words (street names) will find it difficult to give or receive directions if they’re talking to someone who thinks visually (navigating by landmarks).  

And translating is always a tricky task, evidenced by the amazing things you get when you ask a piece of software instead of a person to do it.  Something will get lost, but unless you consider who your audience is, and how they might think, you will have no way of managing what comes across.  This is true of any form of communication – whether it’s an email, a website or a conversation.  Even when two companies are negotiating, the point of communication is always between people. 

When you have something to say, always try to imagine who will be hearing – or reading – your work.  Ask yourself how you would change your style for different people, and check your examples.  See how many ways you could tell the same story.

When we first practise this, it can be easy to fall into the trap of judging others by their social or educational background.  This misses the point entirely.  The idea is to find a way to improve your connection with others, not to get into an ego conflict.  Judgemental attitudes will only create defensiveness or aggression in the other party, and that’s a poor way to improve relationships anyway.


Tessa Silberbauer is a life management trainer.  Like many complementary health practitioners, Tessabegan her health education massaging the available pets as a child, later graduating to people, and less intuitive study, in high school.  Thereafter, she formally studied a wide range of modalities, including Anatomy, Massage, Sound medicine and Shiatsu.  She has spent over 10 years investigating the way we interact with and respond to our world.  The training and courses she presents are a combination of traditional Eastern and Western medical philosophies, complementary health techniques and 8 years’ professional teaching, counselling and therapeutic experience. She is Johannesburg-based and presents individual and corporate training. For more information, contact 083 310 0955 or

Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director

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