[Episcopal News Service] I was driving to a church meeting a few weeks ago, when I saw the car coming. The driver was going the kind of fast that wouldn’t make a cop turn on the sirens but that was still over the speed limit. And since my car was stopped at a light on the intersecting street behind a tree, the driver couldn’t see me.
So I honked the horn. I intended it to be a gentle honk, a pitter-pattery reminder that I existed, that I would appreciate it if the oncoming vehicle veered just slightly to the left, so that the driver wouldn’t feel guilty about hitting me and I could get to my meeting on time and neither of us would have to wait on the phone for an insurance agent.
But as I leaned onto the steering wheel to gently tap the horn, the sound that came out wasn’t a playful lowercase honk, it was a flaming, angry, uppercase: HONK!
Because, of course, cars only have one volume, and it’s usually an angry one.
From one driver to another, I find this frustrating. There are so many different sentiments I want to communicate in my car, but my vehicle doesn’t let me. There’s the subtle honk I hope will warn a biker I am behind him; there’s the infuriated honk when someone cuts me off; there’s the warning honk if I see an accident ahead, and there’s the polite, would-you-mind-if-I-cut-ahead-of-you-to-get-into-the-turn-lane-at-this-light honk.
But since car horns have one volume and one pitch, my polite honk sounds enraged, and my irritated one sounds enraged, and so does my frightened one and my exasperated one, and really, it’s amazing that I—or any other driver—am able to communicate anything at all, given the lack of nuance.
Unfortunately, car horns aren’t the only voices that are too loud and blunt when it comes to communication. Media outlets have a reputation for sensational, misleading headlines that oversimplify complicated problems, and politicians deliver sound bytes instead of detailed answers to questions. Spouses argue without budging on their position or listening to the value of their partner’s perspective. Church leaders have gained a reputation for wanting to back away from pressing theological concerns and instead offer pithy aphorisms that lack the nourishment needed to sustain the soul.
So how can we learn a new honk? How can we, as Christians, in whatever ministry we’ve been called to pursue, communicate better?
Let’s go back to the car horn. While it’s true that car horns only have one pitch and one volume, one thing the driver does control is the length of the beep. There’s the extended I-hate-your-guts-and-I-don’t-care-if-I-wake-up-the-folks-in-that-nearby-apartment-building beep and the short just-letting-you-know-I’m-behind-that-tree beep. So even though the car horn only makes one noise, that noise can still mean different things.
And there’s always the possibility of new technology, of a car company that will substitute that wiry honking for the human voice or color-accompanied beeps, where red signifies a broken down vehicle in the passing lane, or yellow a tire rim lying in the road ahead.
As with a car horn, we need to learn a new way to honk. We need to make use of the nuances already available to us and seek to revolutionize communication, to remember that not every situation calls for a blast. Some call for a beep, and others for silence. So instead of shrieking at a spouse without giving him a chance to respond, try a shorter honk, and then listen to what he has to say. Rather than issuing deliberately inflammatory sound bytes, politicians could revolutionize their profession by answering questions directly, by speaking honestly. And when a congregant or seeker approaches a church leader with a traumatic experience or pressing theological concern, church leaders can remember—as many already do—that it’s okay to say, “I don’t have all the answers, but I am with you, and God is too.”
We, like the car horn, have a long way to go before our beeps and honks and long shrill blasts are as finessed as they could be. And though the process of finding a new way to communicate can be difficult — painful even—in the moments when it’s hardest for us to find the right words, we can always vent by sneaking down to the garage and giving the car horn a tap. Because even if the sound isn’t perfect, it’s a starting point from which we can grow.
— The Rev. Danielle Tumminio lectures at Yale University and is the author of God and Harry Potter at Yale. She currently serves as an interim associate at St. Anne in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Lincoln, Massachusetts.