The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
When I get together with Natalie, we keep it real. Natalie is a literalist, by her own description. It’s not that figures of speech and euphemisms elude her (she went to Harvard), but rather that she loves the language too much not to take you at your word. Once a person said to her in response to a dinner invitation, “I’m not sure I will be able to make it.” Natalie replied, “When will you know?” He then had to get real too: “I mean I won’t be coming.”
C.S. Lewis describes his first-ever meeting, as a youth, with his professor Kirk in Surrey, England, whom he had erroneously been led to believe was gushy and sentimental: “I began to ‘make conversation’ in the deplorable manner which I had acquired at those evening parties. … I said I was surprised at the ‘scenery’ of Surrey; it was much ‘wilder’ than I had expected.
“‘Stop!’ shouted Kirk, with a suddenness that made me jump. ‘What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?’
For me, a pet peeve is radio talk shows where every caller asks the poor host, ‘How are you?’
“I replied I don’t know what, still ‘making conversation.’ As answer after answer was torn to shreds it at last dawned upon me that he really wanted to know. He was not making conversation, nor joking, nor snubbing me; he wanted to know. I was stung into attempting a real answer. A few passes sufficed to show that I had no clear and distinct idea corresponding to the word ‘wildness,’ and that, insofar as I had any idea at all, ‘wildness’ was a singularly inept word. ‘Do you not see then,’ concluded the Great Knock, ‘that your remark was meaningless?’
“I prepared to sulk a little, assuming that the subject would now be dropped. Never was I more mistaken in my life. Having analyzed my terms, Kirk was proceeding to deal with my proposition as a whole” (Surprised by Joy).
Ah, why can’t all life be like that?
A young woman I know did her college freshman year in California and then had to return to Philadelphia because she couldn’t take the over-politeness. She is now quite at home on a campus in a sea of East Coast brashness.
The East Coast is not altogether free of divergence between the verbal and the hidden subtext, of course. After all, New York gave us Annie Hall and the balcony scene:
Alvy Singer: “So, did you do those photographs in there?” Annie: “Yeah, I sort of dabble around” (“I dabble? Listen to me—what a jerk.”) Alvy Singer: “They’re wonderful. They have a … quality. …” (“You’re a great-looking girl.”) Annie: “Well I would like to take a serious photography course.” (“He probably thinks I’m a yo-yo.”) Alvy Singer: “Photography is interesting … it’s a new art form, and a set of aesthetic criteria has not emerged yet.” (“I don’t know what I’m saying. She senses I’m shallow.”)
You always see someone you know at Aldi market. Recently I noticed two obvious acquaintances come cart to cart in the aisle, which I knew would require some degree of social acknowledgment. The exchange evidently went on a little longer than either woman had wanted, and in the end they were trading phone numbers: Let’s do lunch. I felt certain they would never use them.
For me, a pet peeve is radio talk shows where every caller asks the poor host, “How are you?” I would think we bloody well know how he is after the 15th inquiry. Can we find another greeting, please? My husband discovered early in our marriage that my way of arriving at understanding of an issue is to play the devil’s advocate, which I prefer to call the Socratic method. He hasn’t enjoyed that about me but at least no longer takes it as hostility.
Treat others as we would want them to treat us. I live with two men over 87. One makes pronouncements on the weather all day long. We do not live to please ourselves (Romans 15:1). The tongue is for speaking praise, for encouraging, and for letting our yes be yes and no be no. With some we love with literalness and precision. With others it would be hateful to be too precise.