I’m Sorry What?
Why I don’t mumble. Or don’t think I do.
Back when I was tooling around with a rather tenuous career in stand up comedy, I once completed a rather unsuccessful set at the Comedy Store. This was not at all unusual. The host, who had been at the back of the club cackling and snickering now and then at my discomfort, got back to the mic and said, “Well. No one enunciates like Lane Cummings; even if you don’t laugh, at least you catch every word.”
I don’t mumble. In fact, I’m a reformed mumbler. I once heard my voice on tape as a child and I thought that I sounded like an unpopular cartoon character, like the pale kid on the Simpsons that always gets sick on the school bus. Feeling that way, I made a genuine effort to enunciate and enunciate I do. However, apparently my enunciation is either shoddy or imagined because whenever someone asks me my name and I say “Lane,” four out of five times this person will say, “What?” as if I’ve been talking with a mouthful of marbles a la Eliza Doolittle.
That’s when the delicate dance begins. I’ll repeat “Lane” louder and one of two things will happen. Either: the person I’m speaking to will repeat my name back to me as if he doesn’t understand it, doesn’t understand how it could possibly be a name or with a general sense of disgust, like I’ve just asked him for a socially inappropriate sum of money. “Lane?!”
I’ll boldly reply, “yeah” and not make eye contact. When people act like your name, the sound of your name or the way you pronounce your name is absurd, it’s hard to look them in the eye. Unless, you’ve got a roll of tape in one hand and are about to strike them firmly across one temple with it.
The other scenario goes like this: After I repeat my name one more, the person I’m talking to repeats it back to me as they hear it, “Lay?” they ask. “Laid?” they say. “Late?” they inquire. “Blaine?”they posit. I’ve been on the receiving end of all these allegedly heard versions of my name. Once I repeat my name for a third time, at a near deafening pitch, that’s when I become the director of the shipping and receiving department of Blank Stares Incorporated. “Oh,” people say, looking at me with vacant eyes. It as if my name and I have disappointed them.
Unfortunately, this means that I’ve become way too sensitive when it comes to asking people to repeat themselves when I can’t hear them. I absolutely hate to ask people that, because I feel like I’m making an enormous critique of their lives; when you ask someone to repeat themselves, you are somewhat doing just that. You’re saying there’s a problem with something about their accent, pronunciation, tone and volume of speech. Or maybe a really loud oyster and clam truck whizzed by when you guys were speaking. Whatever it is, I honestly can’t bring myself to ask people to repeat themselves more than once. If I can’t hear something, I’ll reply, “I’m sorry, what was that?” and if I can’t hear them a second time then I just nod.
What am I saying? The trauma of being asked to repeat my name and the real or imagined inadequacies of my name have caused me to essentially abandon effective communication. I was once with a group of people, some of which I knew—a pathological mumbler was included in this group. We were all walking to an agreed upon destination when Mr. Mumbles turned to me and said something to the effect of, “Duyawhasunnye?” To which I stared at him and said, “I’m sorry, what was that?” and he replied (I thought) “Do you want something to eat?” I replied: “Sure, do you have anything?” He removed a few tablets of cheerfully colored ecstasy from a plastic bag and offered them to me. Generous, but not my thing. I thought he might have had a granola bar or some Saltines.
In spite of all of this, I’ve never consider changing my name. What I have considered doing is pulling my driver’s license out when people ask me my name and deftly pointing to the printed text. That way people may not see me so much as a mumbler, but as a charming deaf-mute.