Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Few Words on Words

“Because even the smallest of words can be the ones to hurt you, or save you.”
I had an English teacher who insisted vehemently and often that English was one of the hardest languages on the planet and anyone who mastered it as a second language was a lot smarter than any of us sitting there with him.  There is the it's v. its, their v. they're v. there conundrums.  Then there's the read (reed) v. read (red) issue, and is it properly either (ee-ther) or either (aye-ther)?  And that's just if you're trying to speak the King's English.  What about keeping up with slang?  I once drove through a McDonald's after a concert where the young man working the drive through thought it was great fun to talk to me only in Eubonics.  Since conversing with someone about your french fry order is not highly technical, I was able to get through the process without seeming flustered or off-put I think, which I hope denied him the sense of satisfaction he was looking for from tripping up the seemingly square white lady in the Soccer Mom Subaru.  But, we all use slang, and every generation twists language around in order to stamp their own brand on it.  Can you imagine someone from a foreign country back in the 90's being told something is "phat"?  Shoot, can you imagine saying that to my mother or someone from her generation? But you could probably have asked her if she ever went to a juke joint and she'd have known you were essentially asking if she ever went clubbing.

Then there are the things that have multiple meanings that, taken out of context can be confusing.  I can't stand for that, for example.  Does that mean I protest something on principle to the point where I'm going to do something about it, or does it mean I literally can't stand up for something because I'm injured?  You need the inflection to be sure, or the rest of the context maybe.  I can't stand for that!  I can't stand for that!

"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.” 

And sometimes mere inflection is not enough to really understand someone's meaning.  Not the deep seeded hidden message between the lines.  Sometimes you need to see the look in their eyes and to know something about them to really understand what they are saying.  And perhaps more importantly, to know how to really listen to what they are saying.  

“I've learned to get really good at this - say one thing when I'm thinking about something else, act like I'm listening when I'm not, pretend to be calm and happy when I'm really freaking out. It's one of the skills you perfect as you get older”

I have been thinking about words and their power because of a work relationship I have.  The person is extremely nice and I think believes that I am an okay person as well, but we struggle with one another because we come at the art of communication from two very different places.  One of us writes as though we had a zombie on our tail and has to get the message out as fast as possible, so complete sentences are not a priority and there is a working assumption the other person will understand the context in which the response is coming from and therefore be able to fill in the blanks.  The problem with that, of course, is they might fill in some blanks all right, but without a more robust response, sometimes it is a dead on guess and not always right.  The other person in this relationship cannot do anything simply and has to over explain everything, which aggravates the reader who doesn't have the patience to wallow through all the verbosity to drill down to the core message.  You can take a guess which one I am in that relationship.

When we try to cut through that and just try and talk to one another, it does not always get better.  Primarily because in a world where multi-tasking is highly valued, it is hard to get someone's full attention.  I am currently, for instance, working on two screens and have two phones sitting at my side while listening to the radio.  The last time I spoke to this individual, I sat on the phone while they ordered their lunch, so I knew that while I was trying to explain what I needed, half of the attention I wanted was lost on whether or not they wanted ketchup with that.  That just made me repeat myself several times to make sure the message was getting through, which in turn just meant the person stopped listening at some point because I was a broken record.  And so round and round we went.  Whose fault is that?  Both of us.  No one is blameless in a failure to communicate.

"Talk, talk, talk: the utter and heartbreaking stupidity of words.” 

It's almost as though the most valuable asset a person can have to effectively communicate is a psychology degree.   Or a crystal ball.  Really, what you realize is that it is flat out hard work.  You have to set aside you own prejudices and predispositions to try and understand the other person and how they are, what their background is that made them that way, to try and help understand what they are saying now.  And sometimes you have to be sensitive to what they are going through to know that the humanity of their circumstances colors their words, but we are trained to try and siphon that off our work relationships.  Problem is, we're human.  So, we cannot divorce that completely from our thought processes.  For example, when I learned about some personal challenges the other individual is going through, it really helped me be more sensitive to how flighty they come across to me and more patient with it.  That's a fine line, of course.  What is their own private business versus what I need to know to help our business relationship is a hard call.  So, what I have to consistently tell myself - and I'm not always successful - is that we do all have personal lives outside of work, which means we always, always, always have challenges we bring to our work day, try as we might to leave them back home.  I certainly do, so I just need to accept that others do too, and when they are making me nuts, I need to have a lot of patience and realize it may be because of things I do not understand.

Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.” 

But, ultimately, as I've thought about all of this lately, I have to realize that I find myself in a really precarious position with my long distance marriage now.  All these same issues will come into play but maybe more so, because you allow the people you love to hurt you so much more deeply than anyone else.  Granted, we know one another pretty well, but we'll no longer be able to look into one another's eyes and see what is going on inside the other person.  We won't know the kind of day they've had or their immediate fears, tears or joy.  If I call Greg needing a favor, I won't know if I'm getting him at the end of a horrible day and when the question gets a negative response and I'm feeling as though I've been stabbed through the heart, I won't understand that it has nothing to do with me - or not much anyway.  And vice versa.  We're in many ways not really a couple right now.  We're two people with a bond that is thinly stretched over many miles.  My needs aren't his needs in many ways right now.  And his circumstances are completely foreign to me.  And, as I struggle to communicate in business, I realize that communicating effectively with my spouse may be the biggest challenge of this whole separation I have to face.  It's not the lack of proximity really, it's how to use words like a bridge over the distance rather than like swords that pierce one another's hearts.

“Actions are the first tragedy in life, words are the second. Words are perhaps the worst. Words are merciless. . .” 


  1. First of all, I must protest. You are not verbose. In fact, you are what my great, and best english/journalism teacher (Mrs. Barnett) taught us to aspire to - use the right word in the right amount to say what you want to say. That being said, the written word can only translate so much. Though it's beauty can be literally breathtaking (there are paragraphs written by Henry James, Cormac McCarthy, and the afore quoted Maya Angelou that literally make you catch your breath). It's not your fault that most people don't know how to communicate effectively - if they did there would be MANY less wars and civil suits. Lastly, I would just like to state that everyone I have EVER met with a psychology degree (and there have been a few) has been exceedingly fucked up ( I used the "F" bomb because it really is the only word that will do).

    1. Well, I do believe verbose is my true middle name, but let me see if I can say this succinctly: love you and move to Montana!