Do you say what you mean ?
There’s a medicine being advertised frequently on television that instructs anyone considering its use to, “Ask your doctor if you live in or have traveled to an area where certain fungal infections are common.” Each time I hear this, I wonder how many people wonder why their doctor would know where they’ve traveled recently. While I’m wondering about that, I forget to listen to the commercial, so I can never remember what the name of the medicine is, but I don’t think it’s anything my doctor prescribes for me. Then, I spend more time wondering how the person who wrote that particular sentence managed to get a job writing warnings for television commercials aimed at selling medicines.
Did he (or she) skip English class too many times, and fail to comprehend the meaning of the word “clarity?” I admit that most people would figure out that what is meant is, “If you live in or have traveled to an area where certain fungal infections are common, ask your doctor if you should take this medication.” The ad doesn’t say that, however, it clearly tells us to ask our doctor about where we live or have traveled. It says nothing about seeking his advice as to whether or not we should take that particular medicine, which, I’m pretty certain, is what was actually intended.
Why do I get upset about this sort of thing? For starters, I know of a few people who are so literal that they would take it at face value. A prime example of that literal-mindedness, my Aunt Opal, would not only have asked her doctor if she lived or had traveled in an area where certain fungal infections were common, she would have wanted to be informed and warned of just exactly what those infections were and how to avoid them. And, being the worry-wart that she was, she’d be alarmed even if she hadn’t had that particular medication prescribed.
How do I know this? Because I grew up observing some of the peculiar notions and misconceptions my dear Aunt Opal believed with all her heart. She believed them so thoroughly that, even though we all tried to explain things, and even though her own son was a pharmacist, she always stepped into a windowless closet and closed the door tightly when it was time to take a certain medicine that she took for many years. The reason she did this was because it said, quite clearly, on the label of the pill bottle, “Avoid direct or artificial sunlight when taking this medicine.”
I admit to wondering why it was necessary to avoid sunlight over the span of time that I was taking a certain medication, but it never occurred to me that the warning meant to avoid it only at the instant of swallowing the pill. I wondered, idly, what would happen if I spent all my days outdoors, wearing a bathing suit and soaking up as much sunshine as I could. Would I turn green, would my hair fall out, or my toes curl up? Would the sunlight somehow render the medicine ineffective—or even dangerous? When I asked about that, I was informed that the medicine made me more susceptible to sunburn. That was all. And, here, I put a good deal of the blame on the healing professions (i.e., the doctor and the pharmacist) for not telling me that in the first place. Maybe it’s a flaw in my character to always want to know the reasons for such things. When I’m told to do or not to do something, I think it’s only reasonable to want to know why or why not. And, if it is not explained to me, a certain perverse side of me is apt to do exactly the opposite in order to find out what the possible consequences might be.
Aunt Opal would not have minded my telling about some of her little quirks, for she was always good natured and tolerant, and inclined to laugh at the foibles of the human race – including herself. As she grew up in a family of farmers and was a long-time gardener, I find it remarkable how little she knew about the growth habits of plants. Even if she had never taken a science class or read a botany book, I think she would have noted, over her long life, how trees and other plants develop from seeds to maturity. However, I once heard her voicing disappointment over the failure of a young maple tree to show signs of becoming a shade tree in her front yard. When I suggested that, since the tree was nearly as tall as the house, it should have its branches trimmed up to about 15 feet above the ground so that the higher limbs would spread out to shade the yard.
“Oh, no,” she said, “those branches will make plenty of shade once the tree gets taller.” Puzzled at first, I figured out that she believed the tree trunk would grow taller from the bottom up and, eventually, the branches would be higher above the ground. And, I wonder if you would believe the tale of the time she threw her shoe out of an airplane.