We’re in the kitchen of Villa Dafne, a Sicilian agriturismo, learning how to cook. Let’s call our teacher Elena. My fellow students are my wife and Marisa Faccio, the latter a former Accompli partner who speaks native Italian and graciously translates. At our disposal are the superb products of a family farm – artisanal olive oil, wine, cheeses, meats, eggs, vegetables, pasta, bread, herbs – and the proprietors’ time-tested recipes.
Friendly and straightforward, Elena already has taught us how to make such useful basics as basil pesto and tomato sauce. We have prepared an elegant dish of eggplant, thin-sliced and deep-fried, then delicately layered with the basil and tomato sauces plus pinches of grated Parmesan. The lamb chops are seasoned and browning in the oven. Now we are preparing appetizers.
Early on, Elena has recognized my utility as a chopper of onions, garlic, and suchlike, wielding a gigantic, yellow-handled kitchen knife with a skill acquired decades ago in a Cambridge restaurant kitchen. As soon as Marisa translates Elena’s instruction to cut primo sale cheese into pieces, I start in with gusto.
Elena eyes my work critically, arms folded. She says something sotto voce to Marisa.
She says your pieces are too big, says Marisa. Elena vigorously pantomimes her agreement. Way too big – that was clear.
What size should they be? I ask.
Marisa confers with Elena.
She says they should be normal, says Marisa. My former business partner, a gifted advisor to leaders, is starting to enjoy this conversation. I detect mirth in her voice.
Si, si! Normale! agrees Elena, vigorously. She and Marisa exchange a subtle look, which seems to express some kind of solidarity that excludes me.
Just make it normal, explains Marisa. She knows perfectly well that this instruction contains zero useful information, but apparently that is part of the fun.
Okay, so how big is normal? I ask. I turn to Elena, frustrated enough to test the outer limits of my conversational Italian. Quanto, um, normale?
Elena understands. She holds her thumb and forefinger maybe half an inch apart. Normale, she says again, now with a shrug and a lift of her eyebrows plus an extra tilt of her chin that altogether seem to say, Why are you such a slow learner?
Thus guided, I cut a few half-inch cubes of cheese. Suddenly everyone in the kitchen is happy. We all share the same understanding of what is normal – at least in terms of the size of cheese cubes at Villa Dafne on this particular morning. We finish the preparations cheerfully and, not long after, eat the marvelous meal that we’ve created, including normal-sized chunks of fresh cheese served in olive oil with herbs.
This cheese dish is very tasty indeed. As in all of Elena’s dishes, the proportions are just right to allow distinct flavors to blend — like members of a highly effective team, methinks — a choral singing group, for instance.
For days afterward, Marisa, my wife, and I laugh about normale. We love the faux self-evidence of it, the perfect absence of discernible meaning – and in counterpoint, the vehemence of its expression. If the cause of all failed communication among human beings could be distilled into a single word, we agree, normale just might be it.
After all, this is how people think. We carry within us an acute sense of normale – the way things are supposed to be, what we are accustomed to, what seems so obvious that it’s not worth explaining. When our efforts to communicate fail, we get frustrated with whoever is at the receiving end: What don’t you understand? It’s normale!
Human subjectivity doesn’t translate well, even among people who share the same language. What was normale for Elena was unknown to me. I am confident that my normale would strike her – or you – as bizarre. So it is for us all. It’s normal for people to misunderstand each other.
Information theory says that the real work of communication is focused on the elements that are unusual, or unfamiliar to the recipient. To recognize precisely which bits those are, we have to transcend our subjectivity and put ourselves in the other guys’ shoes. What don’t they know that I need to explain?
This reminds me of an old joke. The stranger asks the local, Does your dog bite?
The local says, Nope.
The stranger pats the dog, which immediately, painfully, bites him.
Hey, I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite! the stranger complains.
Says the local, That ain’t my dog.