Call Me Oscar

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 18 Comments

Oscar the GrouchCurmudgeon.

I just love the sound of that word, don’t you?


Linguists believe it dates back to the 1570s, but no one can tell for certain where it came from.

If you’re like me, and English is your second or third language, you might not even know that curmudgeon is used to describe a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person. It’s the archetypal grouch: unpleasant, argumentative, stubborn, and unsociable.

A while ago I made a surprising discovery. I was talking to a colleague whom I had never met before, and near the end of our conversation she said to me:

“I can’t believe how nice you are. You’re not at all what I expected.”

“What did you expect?” I asked.

“Well, based on your blog I always thought you were this grumpy, super-serious, sourpuss kind of a guy. I mean, you’re always so critical of newbies, clients, and colleagues, and you don’t exactly mince words.”

“You thought I was a curmudgeon,” I interjected.

“Your words, not mine,” she said, “but to be honest, I had expected some cranky complainer. You’re not like that at all.”

Normally I don’t fall for flattery, but her comment made me smile. A little bit.

“In a previous life I used to teach self-help seminars,” I said, “and your observation reminds me of one of the main messages I impressed upon my students:

The meaning of your communication is the response you get.

It’s the idea that it doesn’t really matter what people write or say. The meaning comes from how listeners interpret and respond to what was written or said. Intentions -good or bad- are irrelevant.

My colleague looked puzzled.

“Let me give you an example,” I continued.

“Bono, the U2 frontman, was on a fact-finding mission in Africa. One of his hosts gave this long-winded, academic spiel on the origins of urban poverty and the rise of AIDS. At one point Bono had had enough. ‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘But I just explained it to you,’ said his host annoyed. ‘I was as clear as I could be. Perhaps this is going over your head. After all, you’re not an expert.’

‘Perhaps you should explain it better,’ answered Bono.

I looked at my colleague and said:

“The meaning of our communication is the response we get. This academic thought he was making himself perfectly clear, yet Bono’s response told him otherwise. Who was at fault here?

The way I see it, Bono was right. Now, let’s bring this back to you and me. I believe it is our responsibility to communicate a message in such a way that the other person will understand its true meaning. If that’s not the case, we need to explain ourselves in a different way until understanding is reached. 

Unfortunately, most of my teachers -whether in elementary or in high school- never got that concept. If a pupil didn’t comprehend something that was explained to them, they always blamed the “dumb” student.”

“And how is all of this connected to your blog?” asked my colleague.

“Perfect example,” I said. “Here I am… attempting to make a connection between my blog and your expectations of me as a person, and I fail miserably. So, let me try again.

Based on my blog, you thought I would be a certain way, correct? And as you admitted, I wasn’t like that at all. Is that your fault? Not really. Your initial impression was based on my writings. Your response was the meaning of my communication. So, I thank you for your feedback.”

I paused for a moment before I opened up.

“You know, I don’t really want to come across as the curmudgeon of the voice-over world. That’s not who I am. As you have noticed, I don’t take myself too seriously. I love most of my clients and colleagues, and I love what I do for a living. I also want to warn newbies before someone takes advantage of them. That’s one of the reasons why I started blogging.

I blog to provide an antidote to all those manipulative marketing messages telling gullible people what they want to hear. At least, that’s my intention.”

“Well, that comes across loud and clear,” said my colleague. “But perhaps you could sprinkle it with a bit of humor every now and then. Lighten up, and don’t be so preachy. I know your dad was a minister, but a blog is not a pulpit.”

“Amen to that,” I said. “Thank you again.” A few moments later, we parted ways.

Later that day I got a phone call.

“Hi, remember me?” asked my colleague. “I’ve been thinking about that conversation we had this morning, and I need to know something. Were you talking about yourself, or were you talking about me when you told that Bono story?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, earlier on I had told you about the difficulties I had communicating with a client. I didn’t feel he understood me, and I blamed him for purposely missing the points I was trying to make. After you and I talked I did my best to see things from his perspective. I modified my approach and my tone in the last message I sent him. He just emailed me back, and I think we’re finally getting somewhere. Am I on the right track?”

“I don’t think I have to answer that question,” I said. “You changed your communication, and you got a different response. Congratulations. You’re a fast learner!”

“And you’re a pretty good teacher,” she responded. Then she laughed.

“For a curmudgeon, that is…”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: Oscar the Grouch via photopin (license)