Nine-Eleven and other codes
13 years after the horrific bombings at the World Trade Centre in New York we have become entirely accustomed to referring to the day as ‘9/11’. This reflects the American custom of putting the month before the date so September 11th is rendered as 9/11 since September is the 9th month. (The number has added resonance for Americans since their standard emergency dialling number is 911, comparable to the South African 10111).
But the point is that for South Africans, and Brits and almost the whole of the rest of the world, 9/11 would normally not be the 11th of September but the 9th of November (the 11th month). So we have two different formats (date then month vs month then date) and great scope for confusion! My computer software was recently updated: an experience for me comparable to dentistry, a sudden shock of pain and then, even worse, an on-going daily ache. One of the aches is that my computer suddenly started using the US date format but didn’t warn me – so I blithely read a diary entry that showed as 9/12 as being in 3 months’ time and not this week!
It struck me that in our lives there are many ‘codes’ that we take for granted, so much so that we forget that they are codes. It is only when we exchange those codes with other people that we see that we don’t all read them so easily or in the same way. We might blithely invite someone to an event that starts at ‘13h00’ and then are disappointed when they turn up at 3pm and not 1pm. A friend of mine travelling from boarding school in England to his family in Zambia some years ago for Christmas was asked by his mother to bring 1 pound of brussels sprouts. But he misread her request for ‘1lb’ and carried 11 pounds of sprouts in his suitcase! It is claimed that one of the reasons a multi-billion dollar space project between the US and Europe ended in disaster was because scientists on one side were reading the units as being inches and on the other as centimetres. This can of course work to your advantage. If you are on a slimming programme and you are aiming to get down to a certain number, you can overnight halve your weight when you start reading your 120kg as 120 lbs!
The church that you are sitting in now (if you are reading this during the sermon) is also full of codes: the green vestments are not because the priest is an ecology activist but instead denote the ‘ordinary’ time of the year; the statue of the man with the keys is not the gatekeeper to the church but St Peter, the gatekeeper to the kingdom; the red light signals the presence of the sacrament in the tabernacle (whereas red lights on a street have a very different connotation!).
We have usually learnt these codes not by study but by absorption. And we forget that other people might not know them and might need to be taught them so they feel included as part of the community. And be on guard against codes that you use and unintentionally leave people feeling exclude because they are not ‘in the know’.