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Elizabeth Fryer: You get what you ask for

Elizabeth Fryer has written a memoir, My Lost Summer, about her recovery from a coma when she was a teen. Technical editing is her forte. She owns Suasive Communications, a sole proprietorship.

Last month I read a joke−now my favorite−in the September issue of Reader’s Digest:
“A wife asks her husband, ‘Could you please go shopping for me and buy one carton of milk and, if they have avocados, get six.’
A short time later, the husband returns with six cartons of milk.
‘Why did you buy six cartons of milk?’ his wife asks.
He replies, ‘They had avocados.’”

I had to read it twice to “get it,” and then I read it to my husband, who failed to see the brilliance in it. He thought the wife had been perfectly clear in her directive. No, she hadn’t, but I couldn’t convince him of that.

Wanting to share the joke with like-minded people, who would appreciate it as much as I did, I powered up the laptop and posted it to my LinkedIn group Technical Writers in Action. I closed the joke saying, “It shows that people must be clear in giving directions, leave no ambiguities, or they might get results other than what they intended. I bet the husband is a literal-minded tech writer.”

In six days the joke garnered 11 likes, and a few people left their similar, real-life stories.

Tim James, of the Greater L.A. area, wrote of a time when he was about 10 and his mom sent him to the grocery, about a quarter mile walk. “My mom had written a list that said ‘2 1/2 gallons milk.’ Well, she was shocked to see me lugging home five cartons of milk. Where she meant to purchase two, half-gallon milk cartons, I purchased two and a half gallons (five cartons) of milk!” He didn’t describe his mom’s reaction other than to say he wasn’t punished. He did add, “Carrying five milk cartons a quarter of a mile at age 10 was grief enough.” I can just imagine it, the poor little guy.

The overseas contribution comes from the Melbourne, Australia area. Julia Williams wrote, “Reminds me of an unpleasant experience my teenage son had after he read the instructions on a chocolate sauce squeeze bottle. It said that to microwave the sauce, you should ‘remove the plastic lid and foil seal completely.’ So he removed the plastic lid and carefully wrapped the bottle with aluminum foil. Then he put it in the microwave ...” After rereading that one too, I laughed out loud. So did my husband.

Finally, Dick Miller, from Portland, Oregon, wrote that, “in the early days of personal computers,” he taught a class called the ABCs of Choosing a Computer. “My job was to lead the lecture-discussion and then circulate around the room, offering help and advice…. At one point, I saw a student pick up the mouse… and place it on the computer screen…. I went over to ask her what she was doing. ‘Oh,’ she said, ’it doesn't seem to be working. Can you help?’”
Her workbook “plainly stated, ‘Use the mouse to drag the icon to the trash can.’ Whereupon she picked up the mouse, placed it over the icon on the computer screen, and dragged it in the direction of the trash can icon.”

Mr. Miller ended his story with a moral, which seems appropriate to end this article too: “Sometimes it's easy for those of us who know too much about something to be unable to see it through a novice's eyes. Know thy user, for they are not you!”

Page last modified on Tuesday, October 01, 2013 05:33:17pm EDT
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