As someone who can be careless in social situations, blankly literal-minded, and too often involved with the tiny universe that revolves inside his own skull, I don’t always listen carefully to the nuances of what other people are trying to tell me. I think this can be a problem with hyperliterate people who get most of their knowledge from books rather than conversations and who tend to commune more with paper or a computer screen than with other people.
This sometimes forces me to think through possible alternate meanings when people speak to me slowly, directly, and with great seriousness. It’s a type of listening akin to reading between the lines.
The notion that spoken words were not always what they seem crystallized for me one morning a couple of weeks ago. I had the tune and lyrics of “We’re Off to See the Wizard” from the 1939 movie running through my head, and I suddenly realized that the song was a plot device foreshadowing the next turning point in the story. The hopeful companions—Dorothy and her three new friends—tell themselves that the Wizard of Oz will grant their wishes because “he surely is a whiz of a wiz,” and this assurance is based on “the wonderful things he does” and also “because, because, because, because … because!” So, when you listen carefully, no actual accomplishments or wizardly achievements are offered as examples of these famous skills. That should set the travelers up for massive disappointment: no brain, no heart, no courage, and no easy ride home are in the offing. In this fantasy world, it pays to listen carefully and analyze the terms of the implied promise.
Sometimes, in talking with the people who are important in our lives, we expect to receive agreement with and confirmation of our ideas, or permission to pursue a certain course. For example, I remember once discussing a book idea with one of my agents, and she replied, “That subject is really important to you, isn’t it?” At the time, I took this as implying that she liked the idea and approved of my trying to write the book. But on reflection, and in the course of our later discussions, I never heard her actually say, “I can market that idea.” I wrote the book anyway, on the strength of her supposedly tacit approval, and of course it went nowhere.
More recently, I was talking with my investment counselor and mentioned a financial move that was counterintuitive, contrary to current market wisdom, and outside of his firm’s capabilities. His response after a moment’s thought was, “I can’t tell you not to do that.” I took this as implying he thought it was probably a good idea but, for legal and fiduciary reasons, could not say so out loud and thereby take responsibility. I realize now—although the move has not yet played out—that what he might actually have been saying was, “If you really think so, and knowing your headstrong character, I’d probably be wasting my breath trying to talk you out of it.”
Of course, you can drive yourself nuts trying to put too many conflicting interpretations on what people say. If every apparent “yes” means “no,” and every “um” is an artful dodge against taking responsibility for agreeing—or not—then a person could quickly arrive at the conclusion that nobody means what they are saying, everyone is grinning behind his or her hand, and deeply meaningful human communication is impossible.
Still, humans evolved the power of speech and learned the skills of language long before they learned effective techniques of hunting, gathering, herding, and farming—and way longer before they learned to put words into written symbols with inflected meaning. Human emotional bonds are strong, social relationships run deep, and the ability to cover naked meaning with a subtle fan dance of polite obfuscation and half-truths is a survival skill.
In the case of a family member, who will be with you always, and whose anger and enmity you dare not arouse, you quickly learn to say that the failure of the hunt or the meagerness of the gather was not actually his or her fault—when no one else could possibly be responsible. In the case of an author whom the agent does not want to alienate, or a financial client whom the advisor wants to keep, you learn to suggest that a proposed course of action is acceptable—when you really want to drag him up by the ears, scream in his face, and throw things.
As Miss Manners® would tell you, it’s not your business to express your opinion on every subject, especially when the result would be hurt feelings and/or lowered esteem on both sides. Civilization is the business of greasing the gears of social interaction, so that every disjunction of opinion does not become open conflict, and every social conflict does not swell to the point where knives are drawn. Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, in his violent interactions with Romeo and his friends, is direct proof of this concept.
So polite people, those who were well brought up by discerning mothers and who have read the right kind of books—long on Henry James, shorter on Henry Miller—learn to mask their thoughts and feelings until their true responses are better hidden than the faces at a Venetian carnival. Again, it’s a survival technique, one that keeps you off the point of a dagger and lets everybody remain friends.
And the higher skill is to use that veiled language as a weapon itself. The best social wits can use words that cut but never show an edge. They give no overt cause for offense but leave the wiser heads in the room no doubt about what has been implied and who has been gored. This kind of verbal swordplay can be as delicate and subtle as fencing with a foil or as naked and brutal—for those with the wit to discern it—as slashing with a saber.
But for those of us who are socially awkward, literal-minded, and too wrapped up in our own books—even if we’ve read Henry James—this kind of social interaction can be difficult. We can hear “yes” when a subtle “no” was meant. We can wear the clown’s funny hat and red bulb nose without even knowing it. And we can stabbed a dozen times in quick succession and still think we are talking to friends. And sometimes we can dance off to an interview with a wizard, singing our hearts out, and never suspect the disappointment to come.