Tales from the Workplace: On Being Wrong With Confidence

One of my many jobs when working for the Public Sector in Canada was, believe it or not, continuity announcer. This was at a historic military site which did twice daily shows of Victorian military drill or marching band music (alternating days). Those of us who didn’t do either, got to climb up a rickety ladder to an even ricketier crow’s nest with giant speakers, extract a binder of snappy descriptions of what the audience were seeing, and read those out over the microphone. If you were lucky, the drill sergeant would have told you the order of manoeuvres for the day. If you weren’t, s/he would just be randomising them, and you’d have to flip feverishly back and forth in the book for the descriptions, and hope you weren’t accidentally mistaking enfilading fire for form-fours.

Which is where I got a very useful piece of advice, from more senior people in the announcing trade: if you’re wrong, be wrong with confidence. Because you will make mistakes, or have to suddenly truncate a description, or have a page blow away in the wind, or similar, and the worst thing you can do is to stammer and stutter and sound like you don’t know what you’re doing. If you say it wrong, but with confidence, most of the audience don’t know there’s a screwup, and you can apologise to the ones that do later.

Fast forward twenty years, and it’s my first time reading out the names at Redbrick University’s graduation ceremony. I’m really, really worried about mispronouncing someone’s name, so I’ve been looking names up, asking colleagues who are native speakers of various languages how to pronounce things, and, in the final analysis, reminding graduating students that if they’re concerned about pronunciation, to please write a phonetic transcription on the little card that the attendant will pass to me with their name on.

The ceremony starts, and I’m reading off the names, and feeling more and more confident. I’m remembering pronunciations, and I’m helped by the fact that many of the students have written their names phonetically, and then I come to a card bearing the name: Jorje.

Which I know perfectly well is pronounced, to transcribe it for English speakers, “Horhey.”

And the student has helpfully written, above his name, “Horhey.”

But, unbelievably, and with confidence and gusto, I say:

“George.”

I looked for him after the ceremony to apologise profusely, but never found him. Jorje, if you ever read this, may I say that I am terribly, terribly sorry.

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Fiona Moore

Academic, anthropologist and SF writer, living, teaching and working in a global city.

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