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COLUMN: Mean What You Say

Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013

Updated: Monday, February 11, 2013 00:02

In her essay, "Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown," Virginia Woolf writes of the "appalling effort of saying what I [she] meant." Her context is a literary one, but as she was in the business of human character, and a master of the business at that, it seems appropriate to consider that statement applicable to flesh and blood humans.

With me, it resonates because it has a lot to do with the way we college kids converse. I’m thinking first of a particular brand of conversation, the type of conversation that begins with stock salutations voiced with easy tones of "kindness," "gladness," and general "I’m so happy to see you!!!!"-ness, that is usually had with people we sort of know, but not well enough to warrant any real commerce of ideas or emotions, yet is not limited to that—that occurs in some unwieldy setting like the morning Comm. Ave. bus. As a rule, it seems, the joyfulness in these salutations is exaggerated, and some sort of facial contortion approximating a genuine "I’m so surprised to see you!" or "wow!" accompanies it, as does an oftentimes stressful moment of doubt about which type of physical contact is appropriate, if physical contact is appropriate at all. Once you’ve gotten past the salutation, the conversation and all its hyped-up speech continues (that is, if you didn’t completely botch this first part), and soon, if not immediately after said salutations, we reach the point at which the question, "How are you?" is asked.

There’s a pause at this point, almost always, and it’s never more than two seconds long, in which we decide what to say. It is incredible how many responses we weigh and veto in this short time, how many pieces of data we’re able to manage nearly instantaneously. We juggle words, intonations, tones, methods of delivery, plus more complicated aspects of the encounter like feelings of trust toward, friendly or romantic interest in fellow converser, personal fatigue, desire to speak, etc.—and above all, how you actually are.

Yet, despite the immense range and number of these considerations, most of the time, the response we arrive at is, "Good." The converser replies, "Good!" and that is usually that. Some harmless, enjoyable small talk ensues and speeds the unwieldy moment along—enjoyable because the parameters of the conversations have been set and agreed upon and followed strictly and are easy. We agreed we weren’t going to say what we meant and so didn’t. When one of us reaches our stop, with a pleasant goodbye, and sometimes a half-hearted promise to make future plans, we get off.

These conversations happen because, as Woolf so astutely said, it’s incredibly difficult to say what you mean, and conversely, when something is really meant, it’s difficult to hear and respond to. It is far easier to say and hear "Good" than "sad," "overworked," "ecstatic," or "in love." By no means am I saying we should strive to overcome conditions as uncomfortable as standing on the Comm. Ave. bus on a cold morning and always have conversation filled with sentences embossed with deep personal meaning. That is simply exhausting, and really, really annoying.

Speaking of sentences, let’s not ignore the diction of saying what you mean. Woolf concluded that she could not express herself properly because there was no existing method conducive to her type of meaning, and in fact, the methods in place impinged upon her ability to express. She lacked, in a way, the proper lexicon to do so.

We too have this linguistic problem. Words like "dude" or "bro" and phrases like, "That’s cool," "That’s nice," and "That’s weird" are not the "tools" by which conversers can express meaning. Inherent in the application of these words—at least how they’re used in college-kid colloquium—is an evasion of true expression. Things that are quirky, from off the beaten path, or just flat-out odd are "weird" because it’s difficult to precisely articulate that it rattles you emotionally, or forces you to question reality in some way. If you enjoyed something, but the enjoyment is somehow qualified (either positively or negatively), it’s "nice." Aesthetically pleasing things are often just "cool."

Similarly, saying "dude," or "bro" before a statement immediately qualifies the statement as unserious, and therefore, even if the content of the statement is serious, it will not be understood as such. Compare the gravity of these two statements: "Dude, I’m so tired," and "I’m so tired." The latter just feels more serious.

Now, again, what I’m not advocating is that we completely remove these easier phrases and words from our conversation. The same point I made earlier about exhaustion and annoyance applies here. Absolutely no one wants to or can hear and say 100 percent serious, lexically-explicit sentences all the time without A) putting everyone to sleep within hearing distance, B) tying your own brain into needless knots. and C) actually sounding insincere yourself.

Here’s the thing: masters of expression are masters of audience, timing, compassion, and awareness. They know that sometimes, sentences riddled with casual qualification are just about the only thing anyone wants or can listen to, that there is far more nuance in politely and enthusiastically saying "good" on the Comm. Ave. bus with a digestible expression than spewing whatever is on your mind in the most highfalutin language accessible—they know that that is simply not the proper stage nor audience. They know, in almost identical fashion, that there are times when you must dig down and find the right words and feelings, and that people, being a highly communicative species, sometimes really need to hear that someone else is thinking and feeling, and thinking hard about it. And they know the correct language to use when communicating like this, and are not afraid to qualify less for the sake of others.

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