Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Words still fail us

It amazes me that after all these centuries of verbal communication, upon figuring out how to grunt air through our food holes to make words, and the billions of words that have been grunted to name and express literally everything that exists anywhere, that it's still such a struggle to put the perfect combination together in any circumstance whatsoever. I recently saw a commercial for some prescription drug that's supposed to help people who are trying to quit smoking (side effects include making your arms fall off at the elbow and death, of course, but that's another blog post). The non celebrity spokeseperson in a professionally-produced, nationally-broadcast television commercial for a medicine that has allegedly changed her life for the better offered this as a testimonial:
"If I could describe my life as a non-smoker, I'd say 'awesome'."

Wow. If only she could find some way to express her happiness verbally. If she possessed that ability, she would then reach for the most overused, unimaginative and now virtually meaningless adjective in the entire universe. That would be just awesome.
I shouldn't come down too hard on her, though. The point of today's column is that finding the rights words to express ourselves is often difficult. That's especially true when expressing sympathy. Everything seems either trite or superficial or selfish or just plain stupid. Not to the person who hears them. No doubt they're appreciative for what's behind the words but for the person saying them, it's frustrating. A friend suffered a death in the family recently. And, as always, I had no idea what to say.
"I'm sorry" - "Of course I'm sorry. I shouldn't even have to say that, but of course I'm going to say it because I am although it doesn't begin to cover the breadth of feeling here."
"I'm so sorry" - Well, thanks for clearing that up, Robert Frost.
"Hang in there" - Ugh. Seriously? "Hey, keep doing whatever it is you're already doing to cope with this because I don't have a better idea and it seems like that's working for you so, yeah, keeping doing that some more. You're welcome. I'll just be over here being an idiot, which is my way of hanging in there." Ugh.
"You have my deepest condolences/sympathy" - I heard somebody say that. There's a lot of implied gravitas. But it doesn't sound like something anybody would ever say without hearing or seing it somewhere else first.
"If you need anything, anything at all, please don't hesitate to just call me." - "In case I've ever given you the impression that it would be a pain in the ass if you called me, an assumption that is entirely correct, by the way, so kudos to you for figuring that out, I'm temporarily waiving that in light of this current situation."
"He/she is in a better place." - "Let me take this opportunity to make a declarative statement on spirituality without taking your feelings into account first."
"I know exactly what you're going through" - "Let's take me into consideration here."
Like I said, those words are going to be received graciously but that's how I feel saying them. Why hasn't someone come up with a phrase that says "I'm so sorry. You have my deepest condolences. I know exactly what you're going through. At least he/she is in a better place. Hang in there but if you need anything, anything at all, please don't hesitate to just call me."? I don't know about you, but something like "Uhhh...", spoken with a lump in the throat and with watery eyes would suit me ideally.


James Bailey said...

Not quite as serious or final as death, but I struggled recently to think of something non-condescending to say to a couple of co-workers who were laid off. "You'll be in a better place," is not untrue, but they may not feel like it's so much better when the severance checks run out.

Clark Brooks said...

The irony is that when it comes to something nasty, there is no shortage of things to say and the only regret is that we didn't take it far enough. "Oh man, I should have called her grandmother a prostitute!"

P.W. Fenton said...

I like to say "Hey thanks for making me feel uncomfortable by not keeping your personal problem to yourself."