What is Not Said

If you want to understand the conversation of my family, you must learn to hear the things that are not spoken, those tails of conversations, the ellipses that contain silence and truth. “How are you?” I ask. “Oh, just fine.” The unspoken part of this conversation is carried on in the mind of the second party.  “I’m fine” is followed by the unspoken conditional statement by which the first is colored. “Considering I was hit by a bus,” might be that statement, and if you don’t know that part of the conversation, you might believe that person to actually be “fine.”  “She’s been having a difficult time of it,” may be expanded greatly by the understanding that “she” just lost a baby, or was diagnosed with cancer, or lost her job, or lost her wallet.  Any of those things might be the follow-up to that statement, but as it is never spoken, the listener either assumes they know the entirety of the situation, or they bumble along and perhaps either don’t offer needed solace or assistance, or they offer too much.  After all, losing one’s wallet is not remotely as traumatic as losing a job, or having a miscarriage.

In response to this, I often over-share and qualify, expand and define.  The situation might call for an “I’m fine” response, but I will give all the qualifiers to a person who was just using the query in place of “Hello.”  It’s a balancing act, and one I don’t feel I do well.  I teeter between, “I’m fine,” (considering I just lost my job, my car died and I’m suffering from such severe depression that I can only force myself to leave my apartment once a week.) and “I’m fine, but a bit down about the Redskins letting Mike Shanahan go, and someone ran into my car in the parking lot and just drove off, and…”  I have to wonder sometimes if part of this is because there is an art to conversation and that art is rarely innate, but is most often learned, and my teachers could neither properly converse nor could they teach us how to do so.

I have learned, at least and at last, that “How are you?” is not as straight-forward a question as you might think.  For some people it is a courtesy, a polite pleasantry for which the response is expected and required to be “Oh, fine, and you?” That this is the expected response is revealed by the fact that the first party absently smiles at whatever you respond and say, “Fine, thank you,” as they have continued to walk across the room, either to hang up their coat, or speak to the person to whom they are genuinely interested in speaking.  It is a way of acknowledging your presence.   That this is true is revealed by their startled response some six or seven feet away as they realize you just said to them, “Not well, as they just found the tumor that has been causing Jack’s dizzy spells.” Try it out, and you will be surprised by the responses.  It’s not considered a polite thing to do, so you might want to go easy on them by saying something milder, like, “I’m fine, but you have a three foot piece of toilet paper hanging from your waistband.”  Be sure to have a pleasant grin on your face as they turn to you with a startled look on their faces.  “Just checking to see if you were listening.”  Then wink at them.  You’re being charming.  How can they take offense?

As you can imagine, sorting these things out when you come from a family who leaves so much to the imagination is rather difficult.  When the doctor asks how are you, you are tempted to polite pleasantries, when really you should tell them the truth.  “I cannot lift myself out of the tub any more because my shoulders just can’t take any kind of pressure.” “My diet consists of a daily banana for breakfast, a sweet potato for lunch and a salad for dinner, but I am not losing any weight.” “I’m suffering from crushing depression to the point that summoning the strength to wash my hair is a feat to be followed by a two hour nap.” Or, perhaps, “I’m doing just great!  That exercise program you suggested has really lifted my spirits and has helped with my headaches!”  Something other than “fine.”

I find it helpful to pre-determine the type of relationship as a guide for defining the expectations from a “how are you?” query.  A business acquaintance is not looking for the run-down on your nephew’s trials and travails within the Illinois penal system, and your postman is probably asking as more of a greeting than a literal questioning of the state of your being.

Within your family, such prevarication is not normal, is it?

It’s not clear to me how much of the world manages communication.  I know folks who are completely comfortable having conversations with each other in the bathroom.  I consider that serious alone time.  If you are in the bathroom, you might as well be on Mars for all I’m concerned.  I’m not speaking to you until your return.  I wish to be treated the same.  In fact, why don’t we just call it the “Mars Room?”  That would make it clear that upon entry you are no longer part of this world.

Aside from that, I’m puzzled by women who speak to their mothers 3-4 times a day on the phone.  What do they talk about? What are these quantities of vital information that must be conveyed from one to the other?  I truly do not know.

Of course, I must admit that in general I’m not much of a talker.  In fact, a while back I was ordered by the ENT doctor’s office to talk more.  I was ordered to speak.  Have you ever heard of such a thing?  I was having serious vocal problems and part of the answer was to speak more often and longer to build up the muscles.  I found myself stymied.  What on earth would I say for several minutes at a time?  I wasn’t afraid to speak, that is different entirely, I simply could not figure out a worthy topic of conversation.  If I have a decent conversationalist on the other side of the conversation I can hold up my end just fine, but if you get me together with my people, none of us knows how to get the conversation started. It just lies there flapping around helplessly like a fish out of water, until finally someone escapes.

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