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Let’s do lunch?

‘Making conversation’ is often not the best way to communicate

Let’s do lunch?

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

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.


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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Wed, 04/19/2017 05:09 am

    As always your insights are prescient, maybe a little "wild" but that's OK... I did want to respond to your talk show insight. Not only does the caller often ask the host how he is doing the exchange is made even more meaningless when it goes back and forth more than once each. It shows that neither is really listening to the other. I see it as an athlete stretching her muscles on the sideline before the race. The talkers need to get their jaws and brains engaged before they move into the insipid and often farcical exchange, "The Ravens will draft so and so in the 8th round..."

  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Wed, 04/19/2017 07:42 am

    Words, like other forms of expression, are an extension of or reveal motive. It's a blessed opportunity to share what's on our heart but I too often let it pass by without caring.

  • brightnsalty
    Posted: Mon, 04/24/2017 01:37 pm

    I usually enjoy your columns Ms. Peterson, but this one seems unusually grumpy and cynical. What if those ladies actually did meet for lunch? What if people ask talk show hosts how they're doing because it's culturally respectful?

    Evidently you prefer directness (and so do I actually) but I imagine that we'd turn off the vast amount of people we talk to if we're as literal as we'd like to be all the time. I suppose the last two sentences of the column say this but the reader barely gets that message from the rest of it.

  • OlderMom
    Posted: Wed, 04/26/2017 12:20 pm

    I went to college on the East Coast, and at first didn't much like the directness. Then I decided I could probably get used to it, after it occurred to me that in New York State I didn't have to wonder what people said behind my back because they would be perfectly willing to say it to my face!