“Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal ... and a happy New Year!”
Everyone recognizes that quote from the “Home Alone” movies. It’s a hilariously funny story about a boy who accidentally gets left home alone while his parents and siblings travel to Europe for Christmas vacation. The plot thickens when two hapless house burglars, believing the home is empty, try to break in. In the sequel, the boy, Kevin McCallister, played by Macaulay Culkin, is similarly stranded, but in New York City this time, while his parents, siblings, aunt and uncle again misplace him in transit on their way now to Florida for Christmas. And, sure enough, the same two burglars, again played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, catch up with Kevin in NYC, making for an even more hilarious Christmas movie classic.
Where’m I going with this? Not sure yet, but I feel a point coming on ...
The Quote, “Merry Christmas you filthy animal ...” is just one of several harsh, crude, uncomfortably juxtaposed quotes from the fictitious black and white ‘50s-style gangster movie, fictitiously entitled “Angels with Filthy Souls” that played several times within the real movie. It was filmed in noir style specifically for use within the Home Alone movies. It was shot in one day, and the actual total running time of the piece is 1:20. It was added to the plot storyline by the writers as a device to help Kevin out of a few tight jams. In Home Alone II, the writers used this device again and the fictitious ‘50s B&W gangster movie was called “Angels with Even Filthier Souls,” this one running about 4:00. Kevin recorded the gangster’s lines on his Talkboy, then played them back at just the right moment for the desired effect. Very, very funny.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I mean.
So, my point? Getting there ...
We all laughed at these lines and clever film sequences, and appropriately so. Within the context of the movie it couldn’t have been funnier or more appropriate to the storyline. But if someone said that to you on the street, friend or stranger, and by chance you hadn’t seen the movie or made the reference, what would you think?
Here comes the point.
Sometimes we say things to each other assuming the other person understands our meaning. If we are not as direct and specific as the situation requires, the results can be devastatingly harmful.
Usually, once the cat’s out of the bag, and you haven’t measured your words accordingly, it’s hard to backtrack and make the explanation or offer the intended interpretation meaning.
So, is my point to be careful what you say, when and how you say it, and to whom you say it? Yes, of course it is. But there’s more to it.
Talking in person or talking on the phone, emails, and especially texting, all require a specific camber in delivery if the message is to be received as meant to be received, and understood. Too often, we communicate in our own understanding failing to realize the disposition of the receiver target and that we may be missing our mark, losing the point ... much like I may be doing here.
“What goes through your mind comes out of your mouth”, another famous quote from another famous movie (can you guess what movie?), is not necessarily always the case.
How many times have you wished you hadn’t said something or said it in a different way? Probably as many times you’ve wished you had said something someone else said.
Imagine if, jokingly, unwittingly, President Obama, or even more likely President-Elect Trump, said “Merry Christmas you filthy animal ...” to Vladimar Putin, Russia’s president. Maybe Putin didn’t catch “Home Alone.” Maybe none of his advisors did either. Maybe he didn’t get the joke or analogy.
Maybe he read too closely between the lines.
Maybe he orders his IT guy to hack into U.S. security to find out what the suspicious secret code “Merry Christmas you filthy animal” actually means. What if they determine it means “code red?”
What if that harmless, funny (in context) line is taken so far out of context that it chain reacts through all the official Russian government levels unchecked and, unwittingly, mistakenly, starts a nuclear war?
Improbable, but it could happen. In fact, it did happen.
The use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII could have been avoided had it not been for a misunderstanding and mis-translation. At that end point in the war the U.S. sent a message to Japan asking if they would surrender. The Japanese responded using the word “mokusatsu,” meaning “We withhold comment, pending discussion.” But by the time that response was filtered through the official levels of communication in Washington D.C. and finally received at The White House, it was translated to mean “We are treating your message with contempt.”
Boom! Oops, sorry. Thought you meant something else.
See what I mean?
I’m sure that everyone reading this can think of a personal example of having missed the message point, not gotten the joke, didn’t think the joke was funny, or hadn’t realized the sarcasm or humor in either sending or receiving. Or, just plain said something they didn’t want to say, or want repeated. And, somehow, through the resulting misunderstanding or the inaccurate translation, or just plain carelessness, the situation escalated to an uncomfortable, embarrassing, even devastating outcome.
Just look at the trouble President Nixon, President-Elect Trump and Secretary Clinton, to name just a few of our more infamous gaffe artists, got themselves into because of reckless communication practices. That’s why they put erasers on pencils, record mode on tape recorders and the “delete” button on computers.
Aside from that, it’s either self-control to begin with, or a full confession and repentance to end. In between, sometimes you can get lucky and connect with your message, even in ways you didn’t expect. Either way, you can run but you can’t hide.
Watch what you say.
So, Merry Christmas, ... and a Happy New Year!
John Kushma is a communication consultant and lives in Logan.