Wednesday, July 11, 2012

July 11: How Are You, Non Sequitur, Casual Conversation

"How are you?" said one.

"How are you?" returned the other.

"Well!" said the first.  "Old Scratch has got his own at last, hey?"

"So I am told," returned the second.  "Cold, isn't it?"

"Seasonable for Christmas time.  You're not a skater, I suppose?"

"No.  No.  Something else to think of.  Good morning!"

Not another word.  That was their meeting, their conversation, and their parting.

A pretty insignificant conversation.  At least, Scrooge certainly thinks so.  He can't figure out why the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has made him privy to this tiny exchange between a couple of gentlemen he knows.  Of course, you and I know that the "Old Scratch" is Scrooge, but Scrooge himself is oblivious to this fact.  He spends the next few page of the novel completely baffled, unaware that he is witnessing scenes from the aftermath of his own demise.  As the stave continues, the weight of the words between the two characters grows heavier and heavier until Scrooge is literally standing at his own graveside.

You may be wondering why I've chosen to focus upon this particular series of conversational non sequiturs.  I mean, it's a greeting, a meeting, and a parting in five very short paragraphs.  During the course of the words exchanged, the men discuss death, weather, Christmas, and skating.  They themselves seem to attach very little import to their dialogue.  They're just two casual acquaintances running into each other on the street on Christmas day.  I could probably hear a similar conversation in the produce section of Wal-Mart during the holiday season, although the term "Old Scratch" wouldn't be used, I imagine.  The modern version might go something like this:

"Yo, Fred, how's it going?" said one.

"Hey, Barney, you're looking a little rough," returned the other.

"Too much Lambrusco last night!" said the first.  "Well, the old bastard finally died, huh?"

"Uncle Curly told me at the Wooden Nickel," returned the second.  "It's colder than a witch's tit, isn't it?"

"Not bad for December.  You going ice fishing tomorrow?"

"No way.  My girlfriend would have my balls on a platter.  Hey, have a good night."

My point is that, even in a small exchange, something important may be said.  Somebody may be embarrassed or hurt, intentionally or unintentionally.  Words have that power, even in casual conversation.  I know I don't always think about the potential harm I can inflict with remarks I make.  For example, I'm particularly sensitive to comments/jokes about people with bipolar, for obvious reasons.  Yet, I have a friend who just doesn't get it.  Mental illness frightens her, and, when she's confronted by it, she'll say something like, "he's crazy" or "she's out of her mind."  My friend has no clue how offensive these seemingly innocuous remarks can be.

My advice is pretty simple.  If you are a person who has never struggled with weight issues or food addictions, don't complain about your "fat" father-in-law.  If your life has never been touched by mental illness, be thankful.  Don't walk around joking that a coworker with mental illness is going to go "postal" one day.  (That statement manages to offend both individuals dealing with mental illness and those who work for the United State Postal Service.)  Think about your words before you speak, even in a casual encounter.

As a friend of Saint Marty said this morning, "You just never know how what you say will effect people."

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