Divided by a Common Language

It’s an interesting thing, culture. I get an unusual perspective, being an Australian more or less permanently living in the USA (naturalization is on the list of things to do, but it won’t make me less of an Australian. Just more of an American. I’m both, sort of).

Last Monday was Memorial Day, the day Americans pay tribute to their fallen soldiers. Now, I’ve lived in this country for over ten years, and nothing I saw struck me as particularly distasteful or overblown. But then Amanda got an Australian pinging her on her Facebook feed with first a Bible quote (Matthew 5: 9 Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God) then a snarky comment that peacemakers didn’t and couldn’t refer to “fighters warriors or soldiers” and that this isn’t the middle ages.

Now my first instinct here was to apologize on behalf of the rest of the bloody country because most Australians aren’t frigging insensitive enough to make a comment like that a) on another country’s day of remembrance and b) to the mother of a soldier currently on duty outside the country. We might be rude, coarse, and crass, but we do have some decency.

What I did instead was attempt to hammer some sense into what turned out to be an appallingly thick skull armored with deliberate ignorance, but along the way I noticed – or possibly realized – something rather interesting.

See, while Australians and Americans nominally speak the same language, we don’t. Not really.

Americans tend to be very direct and up-front about things. If an American is proud of something, by Dog the rest of the world knows all about it. I’ve heard words like “loud” and “brash used, especially when Americans are busy displaying their dirty laundry and rattling the skeletons that the rest of the world thinks should be properly hidden away in the closet where they belong. What tends to get missed are the other words like “open”, “honest”, “friendly”. And “caring”.

Yes, Americans wave their flag a lot. Yes there’s a tendency towards sometimes overblown and often mawkish Facebook memes.

And yes, it does bother Australians – because the Australian cultural norms are just different enough it’s like a shoe that you can get on but doesn’t fit right so it’s a constant irritant. See, despite the often crude sense of humor and a general belief that there’s only one curse that’s beyond the pale (“no beer”), Australians tend to be rather private. And oddly modest.

Although modesty is probably not the best word to use, because it tends to be a strategic thing: always keep something in reserve in case. Don’t make a big fuss about how great you are, just get in there, do what you have to to the best of your ability, then go and have a beer. Pride is something that comes out on rare occasions but mostly kept to yourself.

Which means of course that American patriotism reads to Australians like jingoistic rah-rah bragging, while to Americans the Australian cynicism and love of taking the piss seems excessively harsh and even cruel. And we speak the same language! We use the same words – we just often mean different things by them.

Imagine how much fun a writer can have with two different cultures that follow this pattern. Two cultures that are on the face of things extremely similar: both descended from the same parent culture, both aggressively egalitarian (sometimes to excess in both cases), both with a tendency to put a lot of energy into work and enjoyment, both with a core belief in the worth of the individual. And yet so very different as soon as you look past the surface…

It’s enough to make me go all quivery with happiness at the thought of how much misery I could put my characters through… Then I remember that nobody would believe a fraction of the real Australia. I’d have to nerf so much just to make it believable.

Bugger.

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87 responses to “Divided by a Common Language

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    I heard a story that some American and British diplomats spent days arguing over a phrase until somebody realized that they were in agreement but the problem was caused by the differences between American English and British English. [Grin]

    • I’ve heard this story before; IIRC, it was the question of whether to table a proposition.

    • Kate Paulk

      Yep. Just as well there weren’t any Aussies involved or the Brits and the Americans would have been horribly offended as well.

      • Synova

        What does “tabling” mean in Australia?

        (“Moot point” is another opposite in US and Brit English.)

        • Kate Paulk

          It can mean either – depending on the context. So the Aussies would probably have said “Did ya want to bring the bloody thing up or put it aside?” (with extra profanity).

  2. Wasn’t it Churchill who said that Britain and America were two great nations, separated by a common language.

    Although, in reality, the Queen’s English, American English, and Strine are three distinctly different dialects. . . And one of the pitfalls of a nearly-common language is that cultural deltas sneak up on you. . .

    • Kate Paulk

      Oh, absolutely. Strine is actually considered one of the most difficult dialects because it’s descended from prison cant. American English is easy – it’s trade dialect. (Okay, maybe being an Aussie it just seems that way). Queen’s English is somewhere midway, with the combination of the trade dialect aspect along with all sorts of fun extras that have crept in from the multiple other dialects spoken in the British Isles.

      And hoo yeah, are there ever pitfalls.

    • And South African english is its own dialect. Last night I read a quote about chickens on the back stoop, and he perked right up. “The porch in back? You call it a stoep, as well?”

      And then there’s what he calls traffic lights. “Love, slow down! The robots are turning red!”

      But those are nothing compared to what he considers invading his privacy, or being unseemly in public!

      • SBP

        Stoop seems to be an East Coast thing. I wonder if it derives from the Dutch colonization of (what became) New York.

        • SBP

          And indeed it does, at least according to two different online dictionaries and Wikipedia.

          • And parts of the Midwest. Porch is the big thing on the front of the house, and the stoop is the little thing at the back door. “Front stoop” means the steps leading to the porch from the walk.

      • Kate Paulk

        Yes, it is, with a ton of loan words from the Dutch as well as the ones that got borrowed from the local tribes.

        Aussies are a bit more specific: if it’s roofed over it’s a verandah. It’s only a porch when it doesn’t have a roof. We don’t use “stoop” but we’re pretty quick to figure it out in context.

        • bearcat

          How can you have a porch without a roof? A porch is the roof, otherwise it is just steps, or possibly a deck if it is a big enough. A verandah is what high-falutin’ people call a porch.

          • Crazy. A deck is made from wood and has no roof. A porch can be made from wood, if it has a roof, but normally, it’s made of concrete. A porch can be in the front or back of the house, but if it’s in the back, and it’s larger than a certain ill-defined size, then it’s a patio. It’s also a patio if it’s disconnected from the house.

            Sheesh. I didn’t realize how loony the terminology was around here until I started trying to turn “what everyone knows” into rules.

          • A verandah is lifted off the ground. We have a verandah over our front porch. But we call it a balcony.

  3. And none of this even comes close to addressing slang, which gets to be amusing.

    After all, “getting pissed” doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere.

    • Shoot, “grilled cheese sandwiches” doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere. Nor does “cider”.

      And let’s not even bring up “fanny-packs”.

      On Thu, May 29, 2014 at 8:30 AM, madgeniusclub wrote:

      > T.L. Knighton commented: “And none of this even comes close to > addressing slang, which gets to be amusing. After all, “getting pissed” > doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere.” >

      • And then there are those of us – the rest of the world, that is – who maybe can speak English, many of us even fairly well since it is the modern lingua franca, but who probably do not speak any of those dialects in its pure form but mix two or more of them, and do not get the differences between them particularly well if at all. 😀

        • lelnet

          It can be somewhere between embarrassing and actually dangerous (at least to one’s social and career prospects, if only seldom to one’s life or liberty) to be unaware that the same term or phrase might refer to:

          1. Proposing an idea for active consideration and debate, or ceasing to do so.
          2. A woman’s genitalia, or the part of one’s body (to also include the clothing commonly worn over the area) that one sits on
          3. Two items of ladies’ intimate lingerie, or else two completely unrelated items of gentleman’s exterior attire
          4. Intoxicated enough to be falling down, or angry enough to be initiating violence (especially confusing, considering how often these two conditions coincide)
          5. Smoking a cigarette, or incinerating a homosexual
          …and so on. 🙂

          • Kate Paulk

            Indeed so. Plain speech so very often isn’t – we don’t realize just HOW much idiomatic usage there is in everyday speech.

        • Kate Paulk

          Oh, indeed. I’m sure the rest of the world gets confused by the competing versions of English on a regular basis.

      • Kate Paulk

        Oh gawd… I STILL have to stop myself from cackling when I see “fanny-packs” advertised here. Not that Americans would appreciate the Oz slang for the same item – “bum bags”

    • Kate Paulk

      Indeed not – and when you’re talking with an Australian, you’ve usually got to figure out from context which meaning is intended.

  4. Wyldkat

    “Two cultures that are on the face of things extremely similar: both descended from the same parent culture, both aggressively egalitarian (sometimes to excess in both cases), both with a tendency to put a lot of energy into work and enjoyment, both with a core belief in the worth of the individual. And yet so very different as soon as you look past the surface. “ “…that nobody would believe a fraction of the real Australia.”

    Don’t be so sure about that. I have a dear friend, an adopted sister, in WA. I’ve learned a little about Oz. My sister (here in the states) is into bat rehabbing – her contact list is over 50% Aussie.

    I say go for it. You may be surprised. Besides, it would be nice to see something besides the Hollyweird version of Oz.

    On the “rah-rah bragging”, I can sort of see it. Kinda like how I view most jocks. “Okay, you won, that’s great but it doesn’t give you the right to act like a jerk/mouth off/.” Gee, any wonder I don’t watch most sports and when I do, I prefer the quiet, humble, competitor? But, having been on the winning side, I get the other side too. So, yeah, I get my knickers in a knot when our Aussie sister starts on her “Americans are so ” rants.

    On another note, I’d love to see you do a version of this and include England. They are so different from Americans as to alien, yet we speak essentially the same language. Just ignore the fact that some of us refer to what is spoken here as American instead of English, to differentiate it from England’s English and Australian English. :-p

    • Kate Paulk

      Well, the dinky-di version of Oz is probably a tad on the scary side to a lot of Americans. Trust me, they tone down the handful of Australian movies that get over here.

      England is another beast again, and English English even more so. I’d need an English co-conspirator for that, though, since I haven’t lived there, and most of the English English I know translates pretty well to Strine. The culture… I don’t know enough about that or how it fits, either.

      So any English folk who read who want to help feel free to offer!

  5. tmlutas

    Having done intercultural translation (romanian/english) most of my life for the family, my personal method of getting people to understand is to not try to translate the words, but set up vignettes that in each culture provoke the same emotion. You just did the equivalent of X works much better in my experience than trying to map out words. After about 10 years of it, I got fairly decent at the tactic.

    • Kate Paulk

      That would work, yes. The words tend not to translate – particularly if the author is punning or playing with words. Or changes the meaning of the words based on context. Or… You get the idea 🙂

  6. Go for it– I would enjoy reading it– and would be wickedly amused.

  7. That kind of story would, indeed, be quite fun.

    • Kate Paulk

      I’d need to actually *have* a story – probably an “innocent abroad” kind of thing with the person from the straightforward culture trying to fit in to the twisty one rather than the other way around.

  8. dgarsys

    While it doesn’t directly address statist vs. individualist uses of language (and how it’s used in the entertainment and news biz more often than not) the following post I wrote a while back is relevant.

    http://www.midknightgallery.com/home/2012/12/4/different-languages.html

    • Kate Paulk

      Oh, yes. I test software for the day job – I’ve been known to say that my job is about translating between Normal Human and Software Geek.

  9. Talking about cultural differences, once on a forum I frequent that has people from all over the world, someone posted a thank-you letter she was writing after a job interview, to see if it looked all right. She signed it, “Faithfully yours.”

    The Americans all said “Faithfully yours” was too intimate for a business letter.

    The British had no trouble with the signature, but considerable puzzlement about actually writing a thank you letter for a job interview.

    • Kate Paulk

      Yep. And an Australian would figure a thank you would be a way to stand out from the herd, but ditch the “faithfully” for a plainer “thanking you” or some such.

  10. True story: some years ago I worked for a middle aged gentleman named Randy. Not Randall, but Randy. He was planning a trip to England, and I suggested that he not take any odd looks, strange comments, or snickers personally. Given that he had a strong almost Finni-sota accent, I suspect that drew more attention than his name did. Alas, I got a new job before he got back from England, so I never found out how his trip went.

    • Synova

      Fellow named Mike Fick (not real sure how he spelled it) had a hard time in the Army in Germany.

      • dgarsys

        My favorite all time name I ran across was a guy named Michael Hunt.

        Keep in mind he usually went by “Mike”

        • Used to work with a guy by that name. When we would call folks on the radio, we usually just used their first name.

          Except for Mike. It just seemed a moral imperative to use his first and last name at every opportunity.

        • Kate Paulk

          I have never seen that name except as a joke. Seriously.

        • When I was working in a local nightclub, they would sometimes bring notes to the singer of the band if someone needed to get hold of someone (cellphones were rare then). One day, someone brought up a note with that classic name.

          Having been a pro football player at one time, the singer had been around a lot, and was then dating some little chickie who was on a morning news show in NYC. The singer read the note out loud, once, then looked up. Then he said, “Mike Hunt’s not here. Mike Hunt’s in New York”. I never found out if she kicked his butt over that one.

          • Ookay… explain for the foreigner, please?

            • And I did get ‘Randy’ but not the others.

            • Splodge

              Mike Hunt
              Mi keHunt
              My C…

              That should do it, I hope. Whilst I doubt anyone here is a delicate flower, it’s probably better to be safe than sorry.

              • Heh. Well, as I have said, for me English is mostly a written language so that’s exactly the kind of stuff I miss. I understand most spoken versions well enough that I usually forget to look at the subtitling when watching movies or television series here (only stuff aimed at children gets dubbed here, everything else gets subtitles) and usually have no problems understanding in conversations, but I rarely get the chance to speak nowadays (which means I don’t speak well right now, you lose it if you don’t use it. Might take a few days to a couple of weeks of full immersion before I’m fluent as a speaker again).

      • Kate Paulk

        I BET! He deserved *hardship pay* for that posting, with that name.

    • Kate Paulk

      Pity – I’d have loved to have heard how that went. He’d have gotten giggles in Australia too

  11. Oddly enough, the Aussies I encountered in Iraq had no problems with US holidays. They were a bit miffed about the no beer rule though.

    • Kate Paulk

      Well, yes. There’s only one thing that qualifies as a catastrophe in Australia – the beer runs out.

  12. Javahead

    I used to work with an English-turned-American who’d immigrated to the US shortly after finishing university. He came across so many instances of mutual incomprehension that he kept a list of problem words and phrases giving both the US and the UK meaning. He started it on his first US job – apparently, it caused a great deal of consternation when he innocently asked the team secretary for a “rubber” (US equivalent phrase: “eraser”). By the time I knew him, he’d been in the US for several decades and the list was over 10 pages.

    When working in Ireland, a colleague told me of the US driving vacation he and his wife had taken the previous summer – California to New York. They found the omnipresence of “fanny packs” in gas stations and convenience stores *incredibly* amusing. Especially since as usually worn they hang closer to the UK-and-Irish version of the “fanny”.

    • Kate Paulk

      I believe it! I try to keep to plain vanilla English as much as I can, and figure that if someone starts looking at me with the blank “huh?” expression I’ve slipped into a little too much Strine.

      Thankfully I never needed to ask for an eraser – because yeah, Aussies call them “rubbers” too. We won’t even go near “thongs”…

  13. One of the things I like the best about the internet is being able to get to know people from all different countries! Misunderstandings do occur, but can be handled with humor.

    Kate, I would love to see what you could do with a story about the two different languages! I used to want to emigrate to Australia — when I was fourteen, I actually wrote to the Australian Embassy in San Francisco (IIRC) to inquire about it. They kindly told me that if I was still of the same mind when I turned eighteen, they’d be glad to talk to me! 🙂 (By the time I turned eighteen I had other things on my mind, such as getting married to Cedar’s dad.)

    • Kate Paulk

      The internet has been wonderful for getting to know people from everywhere – and also learning about our own cultural blind spots! This whole discussion wouldn’t have been even possible 30 years ago because so *few* people would have had any idea it was even a thing.

      I’m sure Cedar’s Dad was much more interesting than Australia when you were 18…

      And I could have a positively indecent amount of fun with a story involving that… I just need some characters and a plot. Um. And to finish the stuff that’s already on my plate.

  14. VLL

    I managed to keep my cool in public over that one (I think!). Had I really lost it over her, I would have descended into a tirade about my childhood dentist, who was a WWII veteran– for the ol’ AZ. He was a naturalized American citizen, because he couldn’t get the treatment he needed in OZ. That I honored HIM on ANZAC day, which is… Not Today. Though I do want to honor his memory, I would not do it for her, and he would probably want to bitch slap her, too.

    She also went off on this stupid tangent about internationalism, and I told her that my next International FB project would be to ask some Brits to wave the Tricolor on Guy Fawkes Day. Okay, I paraphrased myself. I figured wringing my hands and stapling a hand to my forehead would not be honoring the troops. (Not accusing you of doing this, btw, just in case it’s not obvious!) But it might be feeding a troll. So I thought of those I knew who I’d be honored on Memorial Day. I asked myself how they would handle the situation, and decided on some playful chiding. Great. She probably thinks I’m the the Continent’s most evil person. Certainly not in Sarah’s range, but, you know, maybe the queen of all evil for the state of Indiana. 😉

    • Kate Paulk

      Well, we do have to spread the evil around. Can’t have it all concentrated between Sarah and the Evil Lord of Evil and all.

      ANZAC Day, I usually have a quiet few moments thought and a silent tribute. I wouldn’t *dream* of demanding that Americans honor the day, any more than I’d expect Australians to honor Memorial Day. Just to realize that yes, this is an important day to Americans so don’t get all huffy if they commemorate it their way. Big deal.

      That specimen would be a disgrace to any country she was born in.

      And your old dentist sounds like he was a good man.

      Be evil my friend 🙂

  15. Congratulations, you’ve met another, ChrINO (Christian In Name Only). Defined as someone who “reads” the Bible, and thinks it’s was written yesterday. Read in context (Historical _and_ Biblical), she would know better. Peacemakers are the ones who: defend the helpless, and stop the oppressor. Hated by both sides, because they *know* how the predator thinks, and are willing to die protecting others. Hated by the “sheep” because they (unthinking sheep)won’t make a distinction between predators and those who _look_ dangerous.
    For those of us who are Christian Protectors/Peacemakers, the only reward we “expect” it to one day hear. “Well done, good and Faithful Servant.” I can say from experience that it takes real courage to accept being threatened, for doing what’s right, or to protect others.

    • Kate Paulk

      There are a few of them around, alas.

      And yes, the guardian at the breach is a thankless task most of the time. I may not be able to do that job in the physical sense, but I do what I can verbally, and respect those who do physically place themselves between the predators and those they would prey on.

  16. Holly

    My husband is a native speaker of Liberian English. I’m American English.
    “Honey, I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”
    We’ve ended more arguments by comparing our internal dictionaries. Just a sample: for him, ‘best’ means ‘favorite’. For me, that only applies to friends . . . my best pie is the one that got the blue ribbon at the fair, not my favorite type of pie! This has resisted more than a decade of acculturation on Husband’s part, and occasionally results in strange looks from others.

    • Synova

      I went to Bible college with a couple of girls who’s parents were missionaries in Liberia. (actually… next-door-to, I think… but they spent a lot of time there and the kids went to American School there) Possibly because it was English the one girl said that her dad would start speaking it when talking to American blacks… out of habit. (File this under “ways to make your teenaged daughter wish she could sink through the floor.)

    • Kate Paulk

      Oh wow! That would make for some interesting misunderstandings… You could so easily get total confusion by filling a room with native English speakers – just pick one from each dialect and watch the chaos.

  17. And somebody just posted a relevant link on Facebook:

    http://gameswithwords.org/WhichEnglish/

    Claims to be able to place your English dialect.

    I took the test. It’s top three guesses for my dialect:
    1. Singaporean
    2. South African
    3. Australian

    And for my native language:
    1. Spanish
    2. Finnish
    3. English

    Well, not too bad, at least it got close with native language.

    Singaporean? Considering that most of my actual exposure has been to the American dialect those dialect guesses are interesting. Maybe due to the fact that my first exposure was to British English since that was what we were taught in school when I was young. I started to study it when I was 9, and it was my second foreign language, Swedish being first – okay, first, actually, technically speaking, since Swedish is the second official language of Finland (which I never learned well, and have mostly forgotten during the last couple of decades. I speak English when I’m in Sweden, like Finns most Swedes speak it well enough). I have a noticeable accent, but those times when some other non-native speakers (not Finns) have taken me for somebody who is from an English speaking country they always seem to take me for an American. Maybe it’s because I do have that accent, USA is still the first guess when one thinks of a country with lots of immigrants.

    • It did pretty well for me:

      Our top three guesses for your English dialect:
      1. American (Standard)
      2. Canadian
      3. US Black Vernacular / Ebonics

      Our top three guesses for your native (first) language:
      1. English
      2. German
      3. Russian

      I’m on the fringe of the “American Standard” English region – the one that Hollyweird uses most, and I live in an area with a high concentration of people with a German heritage. Not sure what would have caused Ebonics to be in the first list, though.

      • I’d like to know what caused the combination Singaporean/Spanish as first guesses for me. 😀 I have had very minimal dealings with Spanish, I have taken a couple of 101 courses during the years but I don’t speak it beyond a few phrases.

        • Hm, I wonder if the dialect Heinlein made up for ‘Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ has had some influence on me. I did read that book several times when I was young, have always been very fond of it, and I think I may have picked up some uses from it.

          • And having looked at a couple of articles of Singaporean English, I suppose one reason for me getting that might be ‘British English with heavy American influences’. Which probably does fit my English fairly well.

            Still leaves that damn Spanish though. 🙂

    • Kate Paulk

      I confused it – Canadian first, Australian second, Scottish third. For the native language English, then Dutch, then German. Apparently when you mix Australian and American idiom you get Canadian. Who knew? 😉

  18. BTW, about that test, anybody willing to take it? It seems to be fond of ‘Australian’ as a guess, based on the couple of other people who had taken it, one Finn and one American. Both got that as a first guess for their dialect.

    • Splodge

      I’m a Brit. I also got Australian for the first guess.

      • Kate Paulk

        I wonder if they have the various Brit dialects in their database? They might have Scottish and Welsh, but Cornish, Devonshire, Cockney and all the rest?

        • Splodge

          I somehow doubt it – there are a hell of a lot of them!

          According to an article I read recently, in Britain accents and dialects change often enough that on average you find a new one every 25 miles…

          • Kate Paulk

            This doesn’t surprise me… I suspect that the same thing happens everywhere mostly the same people have been living in the same place since the main way people got anywhere was on foot.

            Accents and dialects are a lot more spread out in the places that didn’t get the heavy static population until much later – which is why Australia mostly has three flavors of the same dialect (Strine, Standard, and Educated – although there are those who’d say there’s a fourth: Snooty (aka “Brit wannabe)) with some regional word distinctions.

    • My results:

      Our top three guesses for your English dialect:
      1. American (Standard)
      2. Canadian
      3. Australian
      Our top three guesses for your native (first) language:

      1. English
      2. Dutch
      3. Spanish
      —-

      Accurate. I am American and I guess “standard” seems correct. Not terribly surprised it guessed “Canadian” and “Australian” second and third since I have picked up a bit of British English from how much I’ve read by British authors (but had that tempered by American English) and how much time I spend around Aussies. Can’t speak for the second/third guesses about my native language.

      • Kate Paulk

        I suspect their guesses for the native language have a lot to do with the word ordering and word choices in that long list of “select all the grammatical ones”

        • Holly

          South African, Singaporean, and Australian.
          Well, I knew it wasn’t going to pick up Idahoan because my mother (MA Linguistics) wouldn’t tolerate the local dialect.
          For native language I got English, Russian, and Dutch.
          I’m amused particularly because I’ve been mistaken for being South African a few times by international students from elsewhere in Africa, and my French teacher complained I had the weirdest accent, part West-African and part Parisian, but I’ve never lived outside the USA.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      1. American (Standard)
      2. Singaporean
      3. Australian

      1. English
      2. Dutch
      3. Russian

      Possibly correct on the dialect. I dunno for certain how what I’ve been exposed to would be classed in their system, nor what distinguishing features my own speech has.

      I’m pretty much only fluent in English.

      My mom has told me that I sometimes sound uneducated. Recently, I so badly mispronounced misogyny, misandry, and misanthropy in conversation that she for a short time thought I was using three words new to her. I’m known to say words funny.

      • Kate Paulk

        Oh, the mispronunciation thing is something I do all the time – I know the word, I can use it correctly in a sentence, but I’ve never heard it said, so I don’t know how it should be pronounced.

        • It’s not uncommon for anyone to mispronounce words they haven’t heard used before. Granted, if you grow up with the general rules for English pronunciation, it helps, but there are so many words ripped whole from other languages that the rules don’t apply to, everybody trips over their words sometimes.

  19. Not really directly on topic, but I watched this video today from an Aussie living in Japan and he was talking about the differences in culture when it comes to compassion. Thought I’d share for any lingerers in the thread who might be interested, since it’s similar (and certainly food for thought):