Passport to the other person

Musings on the art of casual conversation

Opinion

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By BOB SULLIVAN

And now, a few short messages from Bartlett's: "Sometimes the perfect reply is to say nothing ... Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech ... I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude ... Be silent and safe?#34;silence never betrays you ... How gracious, how benign is solitude ... Silence is golden."

If all that be true, where does it leave kind talk and gentle banter?

Comedienne Joan Rivers asked, "Can we talk?" Indeed we can.

Today more than ever; tomorrow more than today. There's the Internet, the website, the chat room, the cell phone, e-mail, voice mail, blogs and their bloggers. Our sensibilities are all but overwhelmed with instant messaging. Twenty-first century communication, electronics, or nothing at all.

Plus a few relics like books, radio and television, which only transmit and rarely receive.

Yes, Ms. Rivers, we sure can talk. We can even listen. Sometimes too much, yet not enough on matters meaningful, personal or playful.

And we hardly speak face-to-face, human-to-human, with the grace and sincerity that comes from listening.

 

Some of our least meaningful and unfunny exchanges are spoken at work (by men, mostly). If a fellow worker greets you at all in the morning it's likely to be with one of two sounds?#34;"Wuzzup?" or "Wuzznew?" Neanderthal mouthings at their lowest and animal grunts at their best; small talk at its most unimaginative and insincere.

Two syllables, and he's off the social hook.

And guess who's "on?" The burden is yours. You can sink to his level with a guttural "Nuthinmuch," or rack your brain for an unusual event that probably never took place over your all-too-usual weekend. Yet, it doesn't really matter because, by now, your fellow drone is already three offices down the hall.

"Howyadoin?" is another example. Nobody likes a liar, yet 90 percent of the time "fine," is the answer, regardless of how we are, which is probably stressed.

The lame answer belies the limp question, or rather, the insincerity behind it. Could it be that the asker just may not care how you're doing?#34;that he's miming a witless convention?

You could create your own designer answers to rectify this. If George Carlin is not a family member, it may be tough to come up with a satisfying squelch. One hint: give the asker more information than he wants like, "Howmidoin?" I'm doin' pretty good. My syphilis seems to be clearing up." Or..."I'm doin' alright, but my tapeworm seems to be doing even better."

Snarky rejoinders like these may not garner new friends and could earn you the Smart-Ass Award for that week; still, you'll be positively boosting your sense of self-worth and integrity. Such "over-answers" may also serve to ward off future hollow questions?#34;and that's got to count for something.

It might be best to answer truthfully, "I don't know, I haven't thought about it." For godsake, don't reply "Fine, and you?" You could invite a recitation of the other's woes, and both of you have work to do, places to go, people to see.

So what's a caretaker of the English language to do when caught with the top down during a storm of cliches? Take cover under an umbrella of sarcasms? Play the "polite game"?

Either way, you could easily be nailed as a "literal, flaming liberal" with the chutzpah to have some respect for words and their meanings.

 

The supreme annoyance, "Havanizeday," has reached epic proportions and may never go away. It has been said and heard so many times that its meaning has long faded, and only the sound remains.

It is at once unwelcome and overworn out, and should be given a merciful burial.

Why? Because the human ear is starved for fresh speech, and new sounds and always has been.

If "Wuzzup?" and "Wuzznew?" were ever bonafide questions?#34;then [I hope you] "Havanizeday" must have started as a solicitous farewell, sort of a godspeed, only to have been corrupted and truncated to a command that, like gesundheit, few bother to acknowledge.

But those few inevitably reply with a spirited fusillade of "You toos." All for what? Better to say something "fresh" and "new" like, "Hot enough for you?" or "When you get through washing yours, how about...." Or bite your tongue and think how neat and zany it would be to yell out just once in your life, "Hey, your pants are on fire!" A blessed change of pace.

 

So don't despair if there are no cure-alls for dullness in speech?#34;there are remedies. For the energy-depleted the best reply to "Havanizeday" may be to swallow hard and say nothing, nothing at all. When feeling more feisty or magnanimous you may choose to reciprocate the "command" in kind tenfold with a cheery and robust "Haveanizedecade!" (The other person may think his hearing has tricked him.) Should the condition persist, and you're told yet once more what kind of day to have, josh your well-wisher by fibbing that you were in the midst of deciding what kind of day to have, and that you had already chosen to have a "nize one."

When all else fails you can always ease the other guy's concern, with "Thanks, but I have other plans." The afore-mentioned may be spoken in the spirit of "Hey, if I have to be told to "havanizeday," I don't deserve one!"

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