Daniel Menaker

The Repetition, The Repetition

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

“He probably won’t be swinging at the first pitch, because Smith has been a little wild so far,” says Announcer 1.

“Yes, chances are Jones will let one or two go by, to see if Smith is still missing the strike zone,” Announcer 2 responds.

The habit of repetition afflicts sports commentators even more seriously than it does most of the rest of us, because they evidently feel pressure to fill time and often have basically nothing interesting to fill it with.  (American sportscasters refuse to learn from the Brits, whose soccer commentary is often so wonderfully minimalistic. Or maybe they know, this being nothing if not a voluble media nation, that they won’t hold their jobs if they don’t yak away.)  But in daily life, repetition frequently plays a similarly annoying and ultimately self-defeating role. Many of us tend to say the same thing two or three times in an irritating and counterproductive way during everyday conversations, as I am doing right now (see previous sentence).

Why?

1. Because if we’ve made our point with some effectiveness and see–in the eyes and demeanor of the person or people we’re talking to–that we have, we want to bask in this conversational moment a little. And so we may say more or less the same thing–in different words, usually–again.  Generally, I’ve found that giving in to this urge doesn’t strengthen one’s point but vitiates it.

2.  We may tell ourselves that saying more or less the same thing in a different way will somehow refine or extend what we’ve just said. Sometimes it does:  “I’m really ashamed about the remarks I made about my boss after I left the company. What I said was unfair to him and beneath my own dignity.”  Most often, it  doesn’t: “I’m really ashamed about the remarks I made about my boss after I left the company. I feel really guilty about what I said about him. ”

3. We may worry about the clarity of what we’ve said or the (in)attention of those who are listening to us, and therefore we say it again.

To say something one time, and say it articulately, and resist the temptation to re-say it, demonstrates confidence in oneself and implictly acknowledges, in a flattering way, the attentiveness of the listener.

All that said, there are two circumstances in which repetition is actually one of the main points of the conversation. One is business meetings, in which the participants must ritually iterate what others have said, especially what the boss has said, in order to accomplish one of the main purposes of these primate gatherings–a kind of verbal grooming. The other is just pleasant chatter, about how well the car is running or how nice the scarf looks or how good the strawberries taste or how well the new shoes fit or what a good movie that was. I’m pretty bad at that kind of thing, I’m afraid. And this deficiency has made me realize that not knowing how to just pass the time of day, without trying to raise the subject of what time actually is, can be just as annoying as saying the same thing, as repeating oneself, as covering old ground.

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The Blahs

Friday, July 23, 2010

I read somewhere recently a list of stock conversational phrases that people who care about such things widely object to–“long story short,” “at the end of the day,” “outside the box,” “push the envelope” (why not combine them? “We have to push the envelope outside the box”), “iconic,” and so on. (Sad to say, I can’t think of a substitute for “iconic.”) The most objected to utterance was “Whatever,” as an indication that there may be nothing more to be said.

I don’t understand that. “Whatever” seems to me a useful, new-ish locution, as it implies that most deals, even of one’s own, are not big deals. I like to be reminded that ordinary life is indeed ordinary, especially when I or someone else gets worked up over a small matter. Others can and evidently do object to “whatever,” but I will defend it as an expression of existential acceptance and a reminder of our tendency to be overdramatic. If you tell me I’m wrong, you know now how I will probably reply.

However, there is a not dissimilar default expression that is beginning to drive me crazy, and that is “Blah blah blah.” What use is it, I ask you. If what it substitutes for is not worth saying, as the expression itself so clearly indicates, then why substitute something even more tedious and vapid for it–namely “Blah blah blah”? It seems to signal boredom with oneself and maybe even boredom with one’s companion, by association. The trick is not to talk in a way that leads you up the blind alley at the end of which “Blah blah blah” lies in wait.  Never fail to try to be entertaining.

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On (Conversational) Britishness

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Recently I had lunch with a well-known British writer who told me a sad story about another friend of his who had recently died of breast cancer.  He said she had been a dear friend even though she talked and talked and talked, hardly allowing him to get a word in edgewise or any other-wise. He told a moving story about her determination to stay alive until she herself had a book published, and asked for his help in that regard. And he did help her. And she was published. And she died not long thereafter.  He said again how fond he had been of her even though, as he put it, “She rattled on until you wanted to scream–sort of like me!”

Here, I interrupted, and said, “That is not true of you, at all. You are one of the very few people I know who can talk as long as you want and never be boring.” And I meant it. This guy finishes his sentences, which he confines largely to the simple declarative form. He has a wonderful sense of narrative pace. He is observant of his listener. That is, you can tell that he is aware of the slightest indication of boredom, and will speed things up or change “modes” to adjust. If he sees interest in your eyes about a secondary detail, he will digress in order to address that interest. He makes comic remarks without “indicating” them–without saying “This is hysterical” or “You’re going to love this!” The straighter the face, generally, the wittier the witty remark will be. Except, maybe, for Chris Rock, with that alarming constant rictus-like smile of his.

This friend’s conversation also receives considerable assistance from his Britishness. Somehow, in England, a sense of verbal economy permeates the atmosphere, from Cockneys to Royalty. So even when they go on for a while, many Brits somehow manage to sound concise, just as the French always sound elegant. It can be a vice–a sort of brittle wittiness in film and theater dialogue, for instance–but in conversation is a usually a blessing. We can learn from them.

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Kid Talk

Sunday, July 11, 2010

In the New York Times yesterday, there was a piece by Ron Lieber about handling tough questions from kids about money–such as “Daddy, are we rich?”( http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/10/your-money/10money.html) The piece was reasoned and sensible, for the most part, but two suggestions seemed arguable. One was in regard to the question “How much money do you make?”

The article said, “As with any financial question, your first response ought to be, ‘What made you think of that?’ ”

Really? Any financial question? I understand the reason behind this idea, but  in general I’d say it’s a good idea to answer kids’ questions with an answer of some kind–not a question that may be a kind of camouflage for intelligence-gathering–even if it’s a little corrective. In this case I would counter-suggest, “Enough for us to have what we need” or “We are OK, but that’s a subject for adults to talk about, not kids.” Then perhaps ask a question back, such as the one Lieber suggests. Or “Did something happen that made you think or worry about that?” But first, I’d say, reaffirm the concept that there are areas of conversation which  generally belong to grown-ups, just as there are for children.

The second debatable advice Lieber gives is that to answer kids’ money concerns and questions a parent can always remind them that “they are better off in many ways than much of the world’s population.” Again, really? And in this case that’s not a rhetorical “Really?”  I have always been told by psychologists that it’s not a good or helpful idea to tell children, especially young children, that they are better off than others, because it is a way of dismissing rather than addressing their anxieties. Personally, I think it’s a perfectly good strategy when used with restraint.  It seems to me that to try to install a conscience–and, more important, to help kids understand that this is a very big world and that wealth is a relative matter, and even that wealth doesn’t by any means always consist of money–can not be a mistake.

Maybe it would help everyone concerned to see the recent documentary film Babies, to understand the complex human ecology of childhood, possessions, and what richness really is.

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Remember, It’s Just Salad Dressing (and Other Tips for Surviving Summer Party Season)

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The summer season of dinner parties and visits and barbecues, for those of us who have outgrown all-night bashes and rock concerts and so on, has reminded me of a few conversational points about these social gatherings. So I thought, partly out of a hope to head off future mistakes for myself and others and partly as a complaint about a few things that have actually just happened, I’d try to make a short list of advisories for visitors:

1. Generally speaking, four hours is a very generous length for most dinner parties. Three and a half is much better.

2. If your hosts–at lunch, dinner, tea, elevenses, whatever–stop taking an active part in the conversation, it probably means they’re ready for your courteous goodbye. Recently, it took almost an hour of utter silence for someone to get that message.

3.  Lavish food compliments become a kind of gaffe–a signal of protesting too much. If you’re entertaining someone who says, simply, “This is very good” and leaves it at that, I think you’re more likely to believe him or her than you are someone who falls on the floor in thespian ecstasy over the salad dressing.

4.  Don’t forget that the people who have been your hosts have to clean up after you’ve left, unless they have help or caterers.  (And even if they do, there is always some restoration of the premises to be done that only they can do.) Try to spare them a little energy for that.

5.  Please, please don’t protract goodbyes. Simply fleeing is not good, of course, but awkwardly extended goodbyes often produce empty promises and grievous faux pas, because of the anxiety of separation.

6.  Following my own advice, I will now sign off resolutely and wish you many more sociable get-togethers before Labor Day puts us all more painfully back to the grind.

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