Daniel Menaker

A Word About Big Words

Monday, August 30, 2010

In some no doubt specious piece of pop-culture writing, I once read that women are more impressed by a man’s good vocabulary than anything else about him.   This seems hard to believe at first glance but gains a little more credibility on second or third glance. Because, after all, a good vocabulary often represents a good education, and a good education is correlated with many other positive factors–higher incomes, ability to handle responsibilities, an intelligent view of the world.

But in real-life conversations, as opposed to specious pop-culture advice, using a big vocabulary is using a double-edged sword.  If you have a velleity to use such words, the preponderance of these usages will alienate your listeners, if you use them for the sake of exhibitionism. (As an example, see that last sentence.) And if the people you’re talking to are not those who really appreciate high articulation–children, those who are less educated, even friends and colleagues who are simply more practical-minded–you will sound pompous.  Walt Frazier, the basketball commentator, has made a post-NBA career out of amusing pollysyllabifications.

For all that, using words that are correct and exact and possibly too seldom employed–words that really specify what you’re saying instead of vaguely indicating something like what you mean (“severe” instead of “bad,” say, or “mitigate” instead of “help,” or “plaintive” instead of “sad”)–can indeed make your conversation more interesting and compelling. And that may in fact impress the girls–or the boys.

So it’s always good to learn and use a more precise and wide-ranging vocabulary, so long as you wield it only if it comes naturally, never for its own fancy sake.  And don’t forget that the great poet Dylan Thomas used an extremely limited vocabulary to achieve eloquent and powerful effects.

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Off Course

Sunday, August 22, 2010

One of the main reasons for angry arguments is the failure of one or both parties to stick to the point.  Recently I read a Facebook posting in which someone asked if his friends “sympathized with those–especially the families of the victims–who sincerely objected to building an Islamic center near the site of the World Trade Center.”  Few of the responses addressed and stuck to the question but, however understandably, veered off into denunciations of one side or the other, Constitutional provisions, and politics of many different kinds. People began to argue with one another quite heatedly.

But if the question is taken for what it is and answered directly (with the reasons for the answer then explained on a personal level,  without dragging extraneous issues in), it is a simple matter. It’s a yes or a no. Very often, in domestic and public disputes, we will, for emotional reasons hard to suppress, use a fairly simple point of discussion, even contention, as an opportunity to rehearse old grudges or bring other, irrelevant issues into the conversation.  It’s very difficult to resist going off course if what we’re talking about touches on other sources of rancor.This happens again and again in family arguments in particular, because every discussion necessarily brings with it an entire life history and is therefore difficult to restrict to the here and now.

My suggestion is simple, though like everyone else, I often find it hard to follow: try to recognize, master, and disregard old grievances and disagreements that are beside the point at hand.  Stick to that point, find common ground or agree to disagree. It is remarkable how much more progress can be made in a discussion or argument about important issues if they are taken one at a time.

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No Joke!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

If you’re in a group that is telling jokes, then it’s OK to tell a joke–obviously. But if you’re in a serious or even light conversation with someone else or even a small group of people, a joke interjected, even if its content is pertinent to the subject, more often than not leads to a social cul-de-sac.  Sometimes it’s ruinous. If the joke is told badly, or if it’s just a bad joke, it’s discomfiting.  If it’s a good joke told well, it’s almost as harmful, because it interrupts the flow of conversation, like stopping and doing a tap dance on your own in the middle of waltzing with someone else.  It’s no accident that comedians stand onstage and tell jokes to–or at–the audience. That is not a conversation.

Wit and humor are different from jokes.  They are generally responses and reactions to what has been said by others. Jokes are a performance, almost always, and that’s why they can damage a good talk, because a good talk is by definition not a performance–it’s an exchange and has a shape of its own, which can be dented by jokes.

There are exceptions of course–some people can bring off a joke in conversation on some occasions without harm–but err on the side of caution when you’re tempted, because it’s difficult to restore the sense of bonhomie and real communication if it doesn’t work.

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Merci Encore Une Fois

Monday, August 16, 2010

Thank you for sharing you!   You are v Mark Twainish.   I laughed my way thru most of it and actually had a great conversation on a beach here in Door County WI with a park ranger while I was reading the book after bouncing in the waves…I am curious and at least wry,  I plan to be more impudent because I have had emotional surgery of the heart, have found a sort of enlightenment and am glowing, so what the hell…behaving hasn’t worked.  Is good conversation ever the best?!   It’s what I miss more than sex (well most of the time) since the cause of the surgery of the heart said bye-bye.  Merci encore une fois, you rock, and I agree totally about raising the level of gettingalongness in the world.  It’s what I’m writing about in a special way.

Julie Amelie

Dear Ms. Amelie,

Thank you for the compliments about the book–they are much appreciated. And I’m sorry to hear about the emotional cardiac surgery, which I assume was painful. You haven’t exactly asked a question, but within your energetic and delightful prose lurks a small fear that the surgery may have impaired your ability to converse.  But since you also mention having struck up such a gratifying spontaneous talk with the park ranger, my guess is that you’ll be fine. Time heals most wounds, even to a ventricle or auricle.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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Talk to the Plumber

Decades ago, I was visiting my uncle, who was old and frail. The sink in his kitchen wasn’t working, so I called a plumber for him. It was near the end of the working day, so the plumber was kind to make a stop at my uncle’s place. I was sitting on the porch when he arrived, with my uncle and an elderly woman who lived up the road and had come to visit. I went out to meet the plumber in the driveway, introduced myself, and shook hands.  He said, “You know I used to come here with my father when I was still an apprentice.” I said, “Well, I guess the place hasn’t changed much. Come on in–the kitchen is just to the right.”  The plumber said hello to my uncle and his guest and we went into the house.

He paused just inside the screen door. “Yep–it all looks the same. I remember wondering if these windows were original to the house when it was first built”–he pointed toward some windows in the dining room that had wonderfully antique-looking wavy glass.  “I don’t know, ” I said.  “But here’s the sink–the leaks are around both faucets.” The plumber said, “So, you’re taking care of the old man, I guess.” “Yes, well, there’s no one else, really,” I said. “Thanks for stopping by so late.” And I went back out on the porch.

The old lady–Mrs. McDade was her name–whispered to me to sit down next to her.  When I did, she said quietly, “He wanted to talk a little more with you. ” I said, “Yeah, I know, but, well–you’re here and it would be great just to get the sink fixed.”

She said, “If you ever own a house, the first thing you should know is that you have to talk to the plumber.”

This incident has stayed with me ever since, and over the next few years, espcially after my uncle died and left his house to me,  I began to talk to the plumber, the contractor, the cable guy, the air-condioner installer, and so on as much as they wanted to.  Mrs. McDade was right. You expect courtesy and respect when you are working for someone else, and you should extend the same courtesy to anyone tradesman/woman who is working for you.  Especially if you are professionally or financially “above” them, to treat them brusquely or even briskly is rude and implies that you are better than they are and that your time is more valuable than theirs.

If they want to pass the time of day for a few minutes, pass the time of day with them. It will actually save you time in the long run, if you must look at it that way, because the service you get will be better and more reliable than it would be otherwise, and the person doing the work will be more likely to respond to any emergency in the future. But mainly, it is simply a decent thing to do, just as the plumber’s talking to me was simply the decent thing to do, though I was too young, too new at life to recognize that.  As Ann Landers once said, of herself, “Better than nobody, nobody better.”  So if the plumber wants to tell you that his first kid just went off to college, talk to the plumber.

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Absolutely Fabulous

Sunday, August 08, 2010

“Show, don’t tell” is as good a rule for conversation as it is for writing fiction (and many kinds of nonfiction, for that matter). And perhaps the most chronic forms of  conversational telling–especially among Americans, it seems to me–is what I call Amazingism.  Well, OK, I don’t call it that–it’s dumb and almost unsayable–but I couldn’t  come up with a clever name for this kind of talk.  It consists of the incessant substitution of exclamations of wonder, admiration, and approval for actual details and narrative.  “Amazing,” “great,” “astonishing,” “stunning,” “fabulous,” etc. are all perfectly serviceable words, but their overuse in conversation denatures them and also fails to convey what exactly all the excitement is about, because it reduces the use of what might truly impress a listener–specifics.

So if I say “We had an amazing day at the zoo today–it was really great!” would you be more interested in that, or in “We watched a chimpanze work a combination lock at the zoo today, and saw a turtle as big around as a truck tire”? There is an ethos of enthusiasm among many people I know, and it often leads to dead-end conversation, as a home run often dispels the tension of an exciting inning, even though it is exciting in itself.

The irony is that those who are listening to you will almost always be more impressed if you use these vague terms of amazement sparingly–just say what in particular was so amazing.  And if you do use them, use them in summary, at the end of whatever details you’ve just described–not as a premise that you then have to go ahead and try to prove.

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The Eyes Have It

Monday, August 02, 2010

A few nights ago, I went to a reading by Gary Shteyngart, the young novelist prodigy and someone I signed up and published at Random House. I tell you that because it’s important to the conversation lesson, as you’ll see, and not because I need to brag on my acquisitions (which also include National Book Award Winner Colum McCann, Pulitzer Prizewinner Elizabeth Strout, and genius bestseller Nassim Nicholas Taleb, not that I’m boasting or need to have more credit for the work I did at RH. Heaven forfend!).

Not surprisingly, quite a few of my ex-colleagues attended the reading, and afterward I talked to some of them, and even though I knew they were there essentially for business reasons, I kept forgetting that important conversational fact. So when they asked me how I was and what I was up to, I actually told them, in fairly great detail, and I expected similarly specific answers from them. I found myself going into detail about the new dog at my house, and about what my kids were up to and so on. In one or two cases, with real friends, that was all fine, but in a couple of others …

What would happen after a minute or two would be the beginning of the eye-darting.  Any dependent clause (“Well, when my new dog  Maxwell came home…) seemed to set my listeners’ eyes to wandering, checking out the room, seeing how long the book-signing line was, and so on. The attention being paid to what I said became increasingly nominal–eyes returning to mine for a second or two before darting off again to the crowd–and the answers to my questions grew briefer and briefer, almost to the point of telegraphy.

How rude!, I thought–here I’ve made this trek down here to Union Square, far from my place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and my former associates are treating me like…well, like a nuisance. Nevertheless, I made my questions and answers shorter, restricted my real conversation to one or two friends with whom I had a real connection, and went home, not exactly disgruntled, but certainly even less gruntled than I had been when I was telling myself that my motives for going to the reading had nothing to do with my own vanity.

How rude, I said to myself again. And then it dawned on me that though in fact there was rudeness involved, it was mine, not my shifty-eyed colleagues’. The moral here is that if you see this ocular restiveness in the person or people you’re talking to, don’t necessarily take offense–unless they really are by nature inattentive and impolite, and never really listen to anyone except themselves. You may be the somewhat rude one, mistaking the context in which you are having such conversations.  The reading and the new book, “Super Sad True Love Story,” were new news, and in this venue I was not only slightly older news but also acting misguidedly social in a professional context.

So the eyes have it–they will often tell you more about your own mistakes than signal discourtesy in someone you’re talking to.

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