What If? EMMA PHILLIPS
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What if… everyone just said what they meant?
It seems we’re always throwing down Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trails of language and gesture to try and get other people to just please see what we mean. When we can’t throw down our breadcrumbs within the limits of what we consider to be polite, we can be left stumped. Often is the time I’ve felt like a fish yoinked up on deck, flapping around and gasping, but ultimately silent because there’s no way I could formulate my thoughts. But what if we did away with all of these preoccupations? If we just said what we thought, would life become one long slanging match, with reality TV’s favourite caveat: “I’m just being honest!”
3am and I’m sitting in front of a computer screen with my longtime flat mate and sometime colleague. August is stifling in our 5th floor apartment; the fan is humming arbitrarily and we both have damp towels garlanded about our necks. I feel the sweat pooling in the back of my chair, from the heat and from the impending deadline. I haven’t used this dubbing software before and so my flat mate has taken me under her wing to show me what’s what. Apparently it has slipped far from my clammy grasp: “NON NON NON” she intones, lightly tapping my damp thigh. I’m slightly startled by this Gallic directness. I’m much more of an Anglophone pussy-footer-arounder – it’s either that or my ego is in need of constant massaging. Where’s the milder “why don’t you try it this way” ?!
Would interpreters and translators in international institutions, instead of diplomatically grappling with the fault lines of differing cultural politeness codes, have to deal with everything from explaining that “May God let you search for your children with a Geiger counter” is an insult in Serbian, to mass outbreaks of war?
A Manchester arts lecture hall in a biting mid-December and I’m gnawing on a pen and gulping down cold machine coffee in a bid to make it through the next hour of conversational linguistics. Apparently conversations are grounded on maxims of each speaker telling the truth and being relevant, and politeness functions in terms of appealing to the other’s desire to be solitary or sociable. It’s the difference in buddying up to somebody when you want something or casting out an oblique statement in the hope they get it. It occurs to me that if you have that down, you could really get on in life.
Or would we have the courage to handle the transparency of our opinions with kindness and conviction? One of the people I admire the most is transparent in all her communication. Never spiteful, but always honest, you can rely on her to tell you how it really is. She is one of the most loved people I know.
Bounding across the forecourt of Malaga bus station to hug her, decked out in my new Parisian-brocante-purchased nude-colour jumpsuit. She casts her eyes up and down: “That’s a nice bag”. Obviously what this means is “that colour drains you and the material bunches unattractively at your stomach” – which comes out a couple of glasses of wine later.
Could we all have the strength of character to do the same? Would communicating with people become like spotting that beloved British butcher’s apron of blue sky following a stubbornly cloudy day?
Published: May 6th, 2014