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On not being able to talk to others

Sometimes I think my greatest fear is not being able to communicate.

Photo by Maria Krisanova

Aphasia, they call it, when it’s a medical condition that prevents you from forming words. I had it once during a migraine. I lost my ability to say what I wanted to. As far back as I remember, I’ve always been able to effortlessly create words with my mouth. I think of an idea, and then I say it. Somewhere along the way that thought gets turned into a word and that word gets turned into tongue and mouth movements which produce sounds that make the word. Lozenge, maybe. Or campsite. You know, just, words.

On this one particular occasion, I thought of the idea, but I couldn’t think and make the word for it. “Pirate?” I said. “No, not pirate… pirate!”

I had to go and look it up in a book in the end, so I could say the word.

“Pilot!” I said, at last, filled with relief.

“What about a pilot?” my mum asked.

I couldn’t remember anymore. It was enough that I’d been able to communicate the word in my head to her.

There’s a Twilight Zone episode from the first series. The old black and white series from 1959 which begins with Rod Serling telling you what’s going to happen and ends with him coming back to “tell you about next week’s episode after a word from our alternate sponsor”.

Henry Bemis played by Burgess Meredith. Great name — we don’t have actors with names like that anymore

Henry Bemis is a cantankerous old man who just wants to read his book in quiet. Then the pesky Russians decide to nuke America. Everyone is killed except Bemis who’d nipped down into a bank vault to finally get some quiet to read his book.

Coming above ground, he finds everyone dead and rejoices. Finally time enough to read without interruptions. He sits down, straight onto his reading glasses with a crunch. And thanks to his severe farsightedness, will never be able to read again.

That final beat resolves the narrative. But that’s not the moment that gets me. For me, it’s when he finds himself completely on his own. What would even be the point of reading all those books if you didn’t have anyone to speak to about them? You’d have time to do whatever you wanted, but why bother?

Dogs. That’s the other one that gets me. They look at you with those eyes. “I’ll do anything you want,” they say. Especially if you have chicken in your hand.

“Sit,” I say. They stare at me, those eyes again.

“Please,” they seem to say, “tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it. Anything to make you happy. And to get that chicken.”

“Sit,” I say again. They stare.

I press on their bum and they turn around to see what’s going on. “There’s chicken here? Near my bum?”

I feel disempowered, alone. That’s a lot to take from a creature that just minutes earlier was barking at a leaf.

Photo by Charles 🇵🇭 I think he’s trying to communicate that he likes his hat.

And then when I’m on holiday. Maybe in Spain, say. A country where I can’t speak the language. That’s most non-English-speaking countries so take your pick.

I go into a small coffee shop and buy something. I want to make a wry aside or comment. Nothing meaningful. Just to share a sense of life or connection with the barista. I want to tell them that their cakes look good or I that like their tablecloths. But my Spanish is atrocious, and their English, while better, isn’t at the level that allows me to make them smile with a wry aside.

How do you mime that you like a tablecloth? I feel like going to that effort would amplify the message in a way I didn’t intend; make it seem like I’m passionately in love with the tablecloth. That my love for it is so great, that I need to transcend language barriers to tell them about it. It’s not that, I just think the pattern is nice.

Instead, I hand them some euros and smile too much and walk out.

Words are the way to connect with others. I suspect I’m over-reliant on words. I don’t understand bars or nightclubs where the music is so loud it precludes talking. I don’t know what to do when I can’t talk to other people, so I just look at the speakers instead or work out how the air conditioning works. Maybe that’s just me.

Sometimes words are taken away by the environment or language barriers, say, or because the person we’re trying to speak to is a dog. But sometimes we take them away from ourselves. We stand in a crowded room and find that, while perfectly able to speak, we can’t think of anything to say. Can’t think of how to connect.

It’s not the communication of the information I care about. That barista didn’t need to know my views on his cakes or tablecloths. It’s the connection. The realization that the person on the other end of the interaction too is a human and wishes you well.

And I suspect, it’s that I’m terrified of not being able to do.




Writing about anything

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Simon Pitt

Simon Pitt

Media techie, developer, product manager, software person and web-stuff doer. Head of Corporate Digital at BBC, but views my own. More at

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