When an Interpreter Gets Tongue-tied


Have you ever had an experience in which you are confronted by a situation in your own life that you talk about “on the job” all the time, yet in this more personal context you find yourself tongue-tied?

This happened to me the other day, and it made me think.

To set the scene, my husband and I live on a pleasant street in Murray Kentucky that dead-ends at the city cemetery and runs parallel to the boundary of the city park. We love our street because even though we live in town, it is so surrounded by green space that it feels like we are kind of out in the country. We’ve seen all sorts of wildlife right by our house, including Red-shouldered Hawks, Barred Owls, foxes, coyotes, deer, box turtles, several kinds of snakes, many different songbirds, and even a bald eagle. We live right across the road from the entrance to the park, and our neighbors across the street have a beautiful wooded backyard that backs up to a wooded section of the park with walking trails through it. On the side of this neighbor’s house, between their driveway and the driveway that goes into the park, there is a sloping hill that has been kept wild and “weedy” for years, full of plants such as elderberry, blackberry, jewelweed, Queen Anne’s Lace, wild petunia, violets, beardtongue, mayapples, green dragon, and a variety of other shrubs and forbs.

Or, it was, until a few days ago.

A couple of months ago, new neighbors moved into this house, and they’ve decided to start doing some landscaping.

Earlier this week, I was coming home from a run through the park, and I saw the husband, a young guy in his early 30s, mowing the wild hillside between his house and the park. It’s a fairly big space, filled with tough plants including shrubs and vines, so I was pretty surprised that he was attempting to do this, especially because he was just using a small push-mower. When I looked up and saw him clearing what I considered to be a beautiful wild patch of land, I almost wanted to cry. It seemed so sad. He was getting rid of this little patch of wonderful wildness in the mostly-suburbanized town of Murray. And why?

Now, maybe I wasn’t thinking completely straight after running for an hour in the 90 degree weather, but I looked up at my new neighbor and bluntly asked, “Are you mowing that whole area?” He looked at me tiredly, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and replied with a smile, maybe thinking I was in awe of his ambitiousness, “Yeah.” All I could think to say back was, “Why?” To this, he answered, “We’re trying to improve it and make it look nicer. We’re going to put down grass.”

I was just tongue-tied. All I could think to say was “Oh” and continue walking home.

In my professional life, I’ve spent years talking with visitors about native plants and gardening, wildlife habitat, the importance of backyard habitat, and other related topics. I was so used to getting excited with like-minded people about how we can help wildlife in our own yards. And I loved where I lived because it embodied these ideals.

But now, in my personal life with a neighbor acting so differently from what I value, I didn’t know how to respond. It didn’t feel right to thrust my opinion upon him. It’s his property, and it’s not really my business what he does with it. Yet at the same time I felt so disappointed that the messages I try to communicate all the time are evidently still not widely shared. And of course I didn’t want to offend or alienate my new neighbor, who I’m sure is a nice guy. Why create tension or bad feelings just because I was sad that he was mowing plants that I liked?

After I came home, I wondered if I had handled the situation okay … Was it better to be polite and quiet? Would a different, maybe better interpreter have known how to communicate the benefits of backyard habitat in a friendly and non-critical way? Where is the line between trying to convey messages that you believe to be important and being considerate and agreeable to other people you interact with?

And then this made me think … Isn’t this sort of an encapsulation of the kind of dilemma we face all the time as interpreters? It’s always easy to preach to the converted. Conveying ideas to people who don’t readily agree with them is the hard part. And part of being able to do this effectively is to walk the fine line of making people with different opinions feel accepted and not alienated, but still being able to communicate thoughts that they might not agree with.

I couldn’t figure out how to do this with my neighbor. I chose maintaining pleasant relations over voicing my opinions. Is this okay? And how do you know when this is okay, and when it’s not?


Categories: Discussion topic, General | 1 Comment

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One thought on “When an Interpreter Gets Tongue-tied

  1. bob brzuszek

    Yes, it’s okay not to know how to respond, and you did the right thing by not firing your critique into him. After years of teaching, I finally learned that you can’t expect a person to immediately get your viewpoint even with the most rational discourse. It may take time to educate your neighbor on the values of leaving or planting wildflowers, shrubs or trees on their property. They might not know how native plants can ‘look nice’ at a residence. A good way is to provide a great looking example on your own property that other neighbors can emulate if they choose.

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