Saturday, January 2, 2010

relevance theory and lingering effects

not long ago when we were returning to CA on a flight from dallas, i had occasion to observe a rather surly flight attendant who could have been the “poster child for relevance theory” in that she said nothing more than was absolutely necessary to point her audience in the direction of her intended meaning. i had already noticed a couple of things: her curt manner, and how she narrowed her eyes and stretched the corners of her mouth into a smile-like configuration…the result was not unlike the picture of a possum i saw when i was in elementary school perusing an encyclopedia article on “rodents”.

anyway, the beverage service was about to start, and with service cart in tow towards the designated starting position at the front of “coach”, she backed up the aisle, casting cold glances behind her, announcing to the passengers “arms and legs…arms and legs…arms and legs…” obviously a warning to her audience to keep their extremities out of the aisle, as she would be only too happy to collide with them if they didn’t. (i, fortunately, was sitting by the window, so i was out of target range.) then the “service” started; she came back pushing her cart down the aisle stating “something to drink” without the slightest hint of question intonation in the vicinity. now circumstance and experience normally sanction a passenger’s ready assumption that such an utterance constitutes an “offer”, and therefore s/he could justifiably supply implied information along the lines of:
[would you like] something to drink[?] 
[can i offer you] something to drink [?].
of course on this particular occasion, i felt they could also be equally justified by filling it in as:
[you’re lucky if i give you] something to drink[!]

she eventually came to our row and a “something to drink” was directed first at me…
me:             “I’ll have a diet coke.”
Flight Attendant: [blink]
[eyes move in melanie’s direction]
melanie:      “Do you have cranberry juice?”
FA:              [single nod]
…then to “arms and legs” sitting by the aisle.
A & L:        “Orange juice.”
FA: [take plastic cup, scoop ice, open can, pour, extend hand in direction of window]
[take second cup, more ice, another can, pour, extend hand towards middle seat]
[repeat process, relinquish 3rd cup]
[push cart forward while directing withering look at next row of obstacles to inflight contentment]

sigh.  you never know the effect you may unintentionally have on someone. outside of our being a nameless collection of faces with irritating requests, just like those she sees every other day, she will likely have no particularly salient memory of the passengers she “served” that day. she will certainly not remember me, the diet coke in 16A. melanie and i, however, will remember her for a looooong time.