Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Words get in the way

Sometimes we have to say the opposite of what we mean to convey our intentions more gently. David Graeber:

"The English “please” is short for “if you please,” “if it pleases you to do this” – it is the same in most European languages (French si il vous plait, Spanish por favor). Its literal meaning is “you are under no obligation to do this.” “Hand me the salt. Not that I am saying that you have to!” This is not true; there is a social obligation, and it would be almost impossible not to comply. But etiquette largely consists of the exchange of polite fictions (to use less polite language, lies). When you ask someone to pass the salt, you are also giving them an order; by attaching the word “please,” you are saying that it is not an order. But, in fact, it is."

When we are forbidden by others from saying what we want to say, the seized opportunity to speak our truth becomes precious. Anne Michaels:

"On the way home we passed walls scrawled with a huge V – Vinceremo, we shall overcome – in black paint. Or M – Mussolini Merda. Kostas explained why no one wanted to erase those symbols. During the occupation, graffiti required swiftness and courage. Graffitos who were caught were executed by the Germans on sight. A single letter was exhilarating, it was spit in the eye of the oppressors. A single letter was a matter of life and death."

All the fuss about verbal communication can obscure other ways of absorbing information and understanding the world. Lily King:

"You don’t realize how language actually interferes with communication until you don’t have it, how it gets in the way like an over dominant sense. You have to pay much more attention to everything else when you can’t understand the words. Once comprehension comes, so much else falls away. You then rely on their words, and words aren’t always the most reliable thing."

Physical interaction with others in real time is an essential part of much of our communication. Barbara J. King:

”Our posture, our gesture, our facial expression, and the direction and intensity of our gaze all affect our partner moment by moment, and not just in a linear way. Co-regulation is not a stimulus-response chain of events. It's not ‘He looked away and then I softened my voice tone,’ but rather ‘As he began to shift his gaze away, I dropped my voice and spoke more softly.’ It's not ‘She turned to me, and then I smiled,’ but rather, ‘As she began to turn her torso in my direction, I started to smile.’ A web of contingencies, overlapping in time, characterizes co-regulated communication.”

The ancient sage Chuang-Tzu said that meaning is independent of words, with words being merely a tool to help one grasp it.

“The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you've gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten the words so that I can talk with him?”


David Graeber. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Quoted by Maria Popova for

Anne Michaels. Fugitive Pieces: A Novel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. p 78.

Lily King. Euphoria. (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014.) Amazon Kindle edition. p. 79.

Barbara J. King. Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion. New York: Doubleday, 2007. p. 44.

Chuang-Tzu (c. 200 B.C.E.). Quoted in Robert A. Burton. On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2008. p. 35.

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