Barber shops have never been favored spots in the geography of my life, but they can certainly be a source of amusement. I was at my local clip joint not long ago when a gentleman more elderly than me came in and sat down to await his own fate. He was not yet a bowling ball, but he had only wispy white hair between his scalp and the sky.
Seconds later, I was doubled over in silent laughter.
A little boy of maybe four years, on his way out the door with father trailing behind, stopped in front of this older fellow and asked him a killer question. Without a trace of irony in his tone he asked, “Are you going to get a Mohawk?”
The man grinned in a kindly way and said, “No, not today,” while I struggled to bust a gut quietly for fear of appearing to ridicule the boy. Having received a direct answer to his direct question, the kid just left.
And as I sat in the big chair (an electric chair is similar, right?) getting my ears lowered a few minutes later, I found myself thinking about what that hilarious moment really represented. All sorts of things about kids, of course, and about imagination, and especially about the power of language. Words are my business, after all.
My wandering analysis of this tiny slice of life led me to think about literacy. Which isn’t just about understanding what words mean but about making yourself understood. And about having some sort of impact with the words you choose to use, spoken or written or sent via smoke signal.
While I can’t fathom what led him to ask his outlandish question, the kid succeeded. He used seven simple words and got his answer, which is the best we can hope for when we open our mouths, but more than many can achieve.
We’re not a very literate society, truth be known, which means that many of us — and thus many trucking people faced with increasingly complex challenges — can’t master language well enough to recognize what we don’t understand, or can’t ask the right question, or can’t ask it in such a way that a useful answer will result. Ignorance begets ignorance and the circle is unbroken.
A shockingly high number of American adults — about half — are not sufficiently literate to deal with the demands of today’s workplace. Another big chunk is in better shape but unable to handle complexity in language or math. They’ll hold down jobs, but they will never climb the career ladder.
In the shop, it means that you as a manager can’t assume you’re being perfectly understood when you’re ordering parts or telling someone how you want things done. It could mean some of your employees won’t be able to read a manual effectively. Or know when a crucial point needs clarification. And they likely won’t have the courage to admit their shortcoming. You may never see this until a catastrophe happens.
There’s help at hand, though it will be hard to convince the folks who need help to get it. There are too many sources to name here but a good place to start getting advice is, logically enough, your local library. I urge you to take this seriously because the problem is real.
I know one small boy who’s going to be just fine on the literacy front, but not everyone is as comfortable with the language.
Rolf Lockwood is vice president, editorial, at Newcom Business Media, which publishes Today’s Trucking. He writes for HDT each month on the making, maintaining and using of trucks.
He can be reached at email@example.com or 416-315-1829.