Every so often, I get the eerie sense that I’ve wandered into a scene from a Lewis Carroll book. It happened once at my first job, my senior year in high school. There was a woman working there alongside me who could have passed easily as a ringer for the Queen of Hearts—complete with the upper Midwestern version of “Off with his head!” I had that feeling again a couple of days ago, again at work. Different job, same eerie sensation. It reminded me of the conversation between Alice, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse. You know the shtick: You should say what you mean, says the March Hare, to which Alice ingenuously replies, I do—at least, I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know. They, the lunatics, point out the fallacy in her reasoning—but I wasn’t nuts enough to try doing the same in my situation.
Anyone who cares about words and language knows what I’m talking about when I say that people don’t usually say what they mean, no matter how sincerely they mean what they say. I’ll offer you my example: a coworker going through trying life circumstances has been anything but reticent about making her troubles known, generally in loud and angry complaints about anything and everything. However sympathetic I try to be toward her, I always end up at the conclusion that she is too belligerent to be borne. This came to a head one afternoon when a messenger from my supervisor came down the hall to deliver a handful of unexpected extra work. It was aimed at me and one other clerk, name omitted here, but the acrimonious one exploded into a tantrum: Fine, send me EXTRA work! I’m already too overwhelmed with everything I have to do, but does anybody care about that? NO, nobody cares that I’m about at the end of my… (You get the idea.)
I snapped. Fortunately, for me, it wasn’t one of my more appalling snaps, having very little recoil and creating very little collateral damage. I simply turned to her and said, “She said it’s for me and [name omitted]. She didn’t say anything about you!” I handed half the work to [name omitted] and took the rest to my desk. Madame Acrimony was very quiet for a bit. Then, rather gruffly, she said something that really set me off inside. She said, “Sorry I’ve been so crabby, but I’ve got a lot of really overwhelming problems right now.”
I didn’t snap this time. Mind you, I didn’t say anything at all, though I was perfectly aware that I was supposed to say, “Oh, that’s okay. I understand.” Since the first half would be a lie (not the second half), I decided that the only harmless form of honesty was silence. See, I do understand; but that doesn’t make what she did okay in the least.
All this to say, I have discovered a new pet peeve: people who speak the proper social formulae but mean something completely opposed to the actual words. Take the aforementioned “I’m sorry.” What she actually meant was, “Don’t penalize me for doing whatever the [insert favorite expletive here] I want.” It’s an all-too-common form of manipulation… and I’m not having any of it anymore.
Here’s another one: “Excuse me.” On this one, you must weigh the tone of voice instead of the words, otherwise you might mistake it for a courtesy. Most of the time it can mean anything from “Get out of my way” to “Get over yourself.”
I wish people would just say what they really mean. If they heard the truth of their words out loud, maybe then they would give a second thought to what they really meant. And I plead with those of you who love words: don’t stand silent as words are twisted into a hypocrisy they were never intended to convey. I appreciate words because they reveal. They create images. They open doorways in the mind to the new and the hitherto unexplored. But like everything else in this broken and frustrate world, they get twisted into a caricature of themselves, in which genuine understanding is crushed beneath a load of pretense. Don’t stand by in passive acceptance, an accomplice to duplicity. Say what you mean, and keep the people whom you love accountable for what they say. Weigh your words accurately. A sincere right word at the right time can be worth more than anything else in this world.