I was taking advantage of an extra hour in bed this morning, as the clocks went back an hour for the winter, to finish reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a surprising best selling book in the UK this year.
How sad is that to admit to reading a book on punctuation from cover to cover? Well, it is short and it is funny and perceptive. It started me thinking about the emails we get at Home Base Holidays from time to time from members with a complaint about other members. Fortunately these are few and far between, certainly serious ones are. With the minor complaints or comments on an exchange, it often seems (reading between the lines) that the majority of such problems were likely caused by a lack of or poor communication between the members rather than by malicious intent on the part of one.
So what has this to do with a book on punctuation? Perhaps little, potentially a lot; take the comma out after 'Eats' in the title and it changes the meaning completely and is much more likely to be accurate when you find out that the phrase is about a panda!
A member recently wrote (within a message relating to an exchange that was replaced by an offer of hospitality when a direct swap had to be cancelled due to an accident):
I was unsure (whether to accept the offer of hospitality) but I had paid a lot of money for my ticket and spent months organising my house and buying her peanut butter.I couldn't really understand the complaint, although it was probably to do with finding out that six weeks spent together was a strain on both parties who had been planning to live in each other's homes, not in each other's pockets as it turned out. However, it is this sentence, a perfectly fine sentence, complete with punctuation, that I found difficult to get beyond to see what the member was saying, or possibly asking us to do. What, it's a real hardship to come home to a clean and tidy house - and to buy a jar of peanut butter? It's a small thing I know but had the sentence ended with an exclamation mark I would have given it a whole different meaning, along the lines of 'I know this is a minor complaint in the great scheme of things and I do have a sense of humour (I didn't actually spend months buying peanut butter!)'
Standard ways of writing in English (spelling, grammar, punctuation) do change over time, and accepted practices vary enormously from country to country. So it is hardly surprising that there can be misunderstandings between a few members when arranging home exchanges, even when both are writing in English as their first language (even more care must be taken when one member is not writing in their first language). A member wrote recently (on what she feels is a good way to judge if an exchange is likely to be successful):
I think the best thing exchangers can do is to carefully read the e-mail sent by potential exchangers to see if the messages are coherent, spelled correctly, and answer previously asked questions. I only had to read one of --------------'s e-mails, and I knew immediately they were people I wanted to stay in my home!The sentiment behind these suggestions is sound, i.e. deciding whether the potential exchange partner seems a reasonable and responsible person with no big hang-ups or personal problems (the way we all like to think we are ourselves!) It's a good starting point, but it could mean it may be much harder for people to arrange an exchange who were at school at a time when learning to write 'proper' English wasn't considered a priority, or who just find writing difficult. However, good and regular communication is very important, both to persuade others that yours is an attractive home exchange offer, and later, during the detailed preparations before an exchange takes place. As such, it is essential for everyone arranging an exchange to make an effort to communicate clearly - and to ask their exchange partners to explain anything they don't understand rather than leave it to chance.
It would be interesting to get feedback from experienced home exchangers. Did first impressions count in your decision on whether to go ahead with an exchange? Did you encounter any problems through a lack of understanding between you and your exchange partner? How did you ensure your exchange plans went smoothly?