Speak Softly and Carry a Big…

Someone I know asked me why I don’t respond to her e-mails—usually ones with funny links or forwarded messages—with longer replies. She’s right about my brevity. Unless I have a point to make requiring extra verbiage, I’m spare with words. If you send me a link to a funny video or a photo of a dog in flippers and a sombrero or whatever, I’ll write back, “Cute!” or “Funny!” and leave it at that. If, in another instance, you compliment a piece I’ve written, unless you ask me a direct question I’ll just reply with something like, “Thanks for the kind words. I really appreciate that.” And I do appreciate it. I’m just not going to gush. That would be unseemly. Also, I never figure anyone is really waiting for me to babble. I don’t want to waste their time.

Outside of e-mail, but in the same vein, I’ve always been vaguely aware that my quietness can be taken as rudeness, especially when people try to engage me in conversation. I’m not very good at picking up verbal and visual cues, so I go for the safety of assuming I’m boring everyone. Hence, I keep things brief, unless the situation requires length.

But as I’ve grown as a person and trained myself to pick up on those cues, I’ve learned that some people are not particularly interested in hearing me speak at length, ever. People have different ideas about what “at length” means. I’ve been interrupted while offering very short answers to questions. I’ve been asked my opinion, and after 10 seconds the questioner is off speaking to someone else. In my favorite moment, I was asked a question, and as I opened my mouth, someone next to me (not Mike) started answering the question FOR me. Sometimes it’s better to be silent and still.

Largely, it’s my voice and demeanor. Like my father, I speak in low, modulated tones; unlike him I mumble. As a lawyer and ex-politician, Dad learned to project his voice when needed, but in conversation he only raises his voice when noise pollution rises in the immediate vicinity. Even then he’s not a shouter. I’m with him on that one—in most conversation there’s no need to to yell. Hilariously, if you rudely interrupt my dad, he’ll adjust the power, not the volume, of his voice and run you over like a bulldozer. I’ve noticed this mostly happens with people who fancy themselves mavericks. They ask Dad a question, and as he methodically outlines his answer they try to “help” him along, interrupting, shout-talking at him as if they’re at a nightclub, trying to prod him into reaching the answer they want, not the answer they need. Then Dad takes a breath and lets fly with his deep, bludgeoning locomotive voice. I’ve seen people step back, startled, when he does that. Defying authority has become so rote these days, it amazes people when they encounter an authority figure who won’t bend to their desires. I suppose it’s a turn off for some people, and they think Dad is being overbearing, but from my perspective he’s doing what’s best for them, even if they don’t know it. Whenever I meet someone who takes their time explaining something, I listen, especially if they seem to know what they’re talking about. In conversation, what is a person supposed to be doing instead?

So, why don’t I speak up? Why don’t I engage?

If I’m at work it’s because I’m there to work, not gabble. I shoot the breeze like anyone else, but I’ve been hired to edit and proof, and edit and proof I shall. I think my reputation for rudeness (or, at least, aloofness) comes from my habit of not realizing when people I barely speak to want to talk to me. I come into the cafeteria, say “Hey” or “Good morning” to whoever, get my coffee, and leave. When someone (again, usually someone I barely converse with) asks me “How’s your son?” or “Going anywhere for vacation?”, it doesn’t register because I’m thinking “Get coffee. Go back to desk. Proof. Edit. Write.” My co-workers often have to (“have to”) ask the question again, which boggles me for a few seconds as my brain registers what they’re saying.

“Excuse me?” I ask.

“How’s your son?/Going anywhere for vacation?/Etc.”

Okay, there’s a little rude part of me that causes me to knit my brow when I hear these questions. I can’t for the life of me understand why a passing acquaintance is asking me about my life. It hasn’t occurred to me—and I suppose I’m an ass for this—to wonder about their life. I’m a liberal guy, and I believe in fair play, freedom, happiness, and all that shit, but I don’t get into the nitty-gritty of the lives of (key word) EVERYONE around me. I won’t say I don’t care, but I can’t say I care all that much because I fail to see the relevance of such conversation. It’s okay, I don’t expect my life to enthrall anyone. That’s not self-effacement, it’s just fact.

Which is minorly monstrous, I guess, though in my defense I don’t think I’m hurting anyone as long as I keep my mouth shut and maintain an expression of rapt interest. Mike has coached me on this over the years. I’ve learned to make eye contact and have a set of answers ready now. My humanity is coming along nicely.

How’s my son?

* He’s healthy and happy and growing every day.
* He’s all boy.
* He’s into everything.

Going anywhere on vacation?:

* Nope, staying home and working on the house.
* Yes, we’re heading to XYZ destination.
* I am a Lincoln/Architecture/History/Whatever buff.

I cleave to a script, and it’s interesting how little difference it makes since everyone else has his or her own script as well. I don’t do this to be a jerk. I’m just missing a necessary something that many people seem to have in order to engage in normal social interactions. When people who I don’t know very well  try to have conversations with me, I’m incapable of recognizing that they want to talk to me, because when I talk I’m usually interrupted, because, I guess, I’m not honoring the rules. I just wish I knew what the rules were. If nothing else I’d be a better conversation faker.

And that, dear children, is why I write.

Author: Mr. Dan Kelly

Chicago writer interested in many things.