Category Archives: Language

The Value of Not Getting to the Point

I read somewhere recently, I forget where, that the purpose of people getting together for a conversation over a beer or coffee or lunch or dinner is that it the food and drink spare us from the burden of needing to have something to say throughout the whole conversation.

This was a revelation to me. All this time, I assumed that the primary purpose of lunch was lunch. All this time, I figured that I was just lousy at conversation because being an introvert made conversation awkward and laborious for me. For everyone else, conversation seems comparatively effortless. But it seems from this data that conversation must be harder for everyone else than I had assumed.

My oldest daughter is a freshman in college. She recently texted me and said she wanted to talk. I asked, what about? She got annoyed at me for asking.

I was clueless as to why. I guess the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to all of us, there’s always some area of life where we’re so incompetent we don’t even know we’re incompetent. This area, apparently, was one of mine.

She asked if we could just talk about something stupid. So I called her, and we talked about Donald Trump and the presidential race and stuff like that for a good long while. I didn’t ask about what was really bothering her.

Eventually, the conversation turned, and we finally got to talking about the thing she wanted to talk about. But that probably at least half an hour into the conversation. We segued slowly and organically from the stupid stuff into the real issue.

And this, too, was a bit of a revelation to me, that someone would not want to get straight to the point, that someone would need a nice long conversational warmup before they’d feel comfortable enough to be ready to talk about something more uncomfortable. I’m very much a get-to-the-point kind of person. I tend to say what I mean, or nothing at all.

Language is imprecise. Our feelings don’t always have direct translations into speech. It’s hard to explain what we feel, to say exactly what we mean. We have wants and desires and emotions, and we often try to rationalize those feelings. Those rationalizations are often logically incoherent. But it’s hard to see the incoherence of our own rationalizations because our points of view are so limited. And often (if we’re not falling prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect) we intuit that our rationalizations may be incoherent. So we’re cautious in what we say. We know that there can be social penalties for saying the wrong thing in the wrong way to the wrong person.

All this adds up to making the act of talking about something sensitive daunting. There is a vulnerability in speaking. That’s why our culture has all these rituals and conventions around conversation, like idle chit-chat and coffee and such: to build enough trust in the environment where we can feel comfortable enough to overcome the vulnerability inherent in speech.

I never fully understood this before. I feel like everyone else understands it, though, because they act as if they do. But if they do, it must be an intuitive understanding, a grokking, not an explicit fact that people state out loud. Otherwise, I probably would have heard someone say it explicitly sometime before in the almost 50 years I’ve been in this earth.

Having now finally come to this understanding, it occurs to me that perhaps this is the great flaw with Twitter, why everyone I know on Twitter seems to eventually run into a wall with it. The 140-character format pushes you to get straight to the point. There is no room for the idle chit-chat and sips of coffee and other conversational rituals that let us dance around the sensitive issues. Without these rituals that are built into real-life human-to-human conversation, the problems with speech that those cultural rituals are designed to prevent come flooding in.

There is so much hair pulling and teeth grinding about what people should and should not say online, and how they should or should not say it. And maybe all that hair pulling and teeth grinding arise because our online conversational cultures, and the technological platforms they reside on, have not had the time to evolve into something that works, the way that our real-life conversational culture has.

There are many, many more people who are clueless about how to behave in online conversations than there are people who are clueless about how to behave in offline ones. How I came to be the flipside of that, I don’t know.

And it also occurs to me that there is a value in stating explicitly the things that are mostly just intuited about human nature and human culture. I want to explore these sorts of things. There is a risk, though, a vulnerability, in stating these things. The people who intuitively grasp these things will feel as though I am insulting their intelligence by stating something so obvious it shouldn’t need saying. But it isn’t meant as an insult to their intelligence, it’s meant as an insult to mine. I need to say these things because I’m the one who doesn’t understand these things. I need them explained to myself.

Which is all a roundabout way of stating something that maybe could fit into a tweet: I plan to start saying things that aren’t obvious to me but may be obvious to others. Sorry if you fall into the latter category and I waste your time. Such is the risk of saying anything, ever. And sorry for the roundaboutness in getting to this point. I seemed to need it, for some strange reason.

Koro Dewes

The Māori language, the language spoken by native New Zealanders, is a member of the Polynesian family of languages, along with other Pacific island languages such as Tahitian, Samoan and Hawaiian.

Back around the year 1900, a large majority of people of Māori descent spoke the Māori language, or “te reo”, as their first and native tongue. But then the New Zealand government decided that all schools should be taught in English, and the Māori language was not allowed to be spoken in the classroom. A generation later, when the children of that policy grew up, they were fully bilingual. But as most educational and economic opportunities were in English, many people of that generation spoke Māori to their older relatives, but English to their children. This next generation was also bilingual, but spoke English as their first language, and Māori only passively. As a result, in the third generation between 1950 and 1975, there began a rapid decline in the number of native Māori speakers, and the language appeared to be headed to extinction.

“…the ability to speak te reo amongst Māori children declined from 90 per cent in 1913 to 80 per cent in 1923 to 55 per cent in 1950 to 26 per cent in 1953–58 and to 5 per cent in 1975.”

Waitangi Tribual Report, 2011

Alarmed by the declining state of the Māori language, a movement arose in the 1960s and 1970s among the remaining native speakers to try to preserve and restore the language. At first, they faced a lot of resistance from the New Zealand government. As late as 1979, the New Zealand Minister of Māori Affairs, Ben Couch, said that he saw no need to take legislative steps to preserve the language. However, the movement persisted, and major advances were made in the 1980s. The Kohanga Reo movement brought Māori language instruction to preschoolers in 1982, followed three years later by Kura Kaupapa Māori, which created Māori-language primary schools, as well. They pushed for, and got, native-language broadcasts on TV. And finally, the Māori Language Act of 1987 brought official language status to the Māori language in New Zealand.

These measures brought some measure of success to growing and promoting the Māori language. For about 10-15 years, the decline of the language reversed, and populations of native speakers grew steadily for a time. However, sometime around the turn of the century the growth seemed to stall, and has in the last few years returned to a slow decline. There is more work to be done to keep the Māori language alive.

* * *

The Random Wikipedia of the day is the entry for Koro Dewes, a man who was a key figure in the struggle to promote the Māori language. Mr. Dewes, who lived from 1930 to 2010, did most of his advocacy for the language at the university level. He was a lecturer at both the University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington. At Wellington, he helped extend the course catalog so that students could get a degree in the Māori language studies. He was also the first person to submit a post-graduate thesis written in the Māori language without a translation.

Here is a news story on Mr. Dewes’ life, presented in the Māori language, of course, with English subtitles:

The Pursuit of Tenderness

I have come in recent days to question the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson’s 231-year-old sentence that we are celebrating today:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While I am certainly grateful for all the blessings this sentence has laid upon us, it is the last word of the sentence that I have been pondering. Indeed, the phrase “pursuit of Happiness” seems to be the only part of the sentence that is uniquely Jeffersonian; the rest of it comes borrowed from other famous Enlightment philosophies, particularly those of John Locke.

Locke wrote about “Life, Liberty and Estate”. Adam Smith followed Locke up with a discussion of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Property.” Scholars are not quite sure why Jefferson changed it from “Property”, a basic legal concept, to “Happiness”, a basic human emotion, but the effect is huge. By placing an emotion into the sentence, the sentence comes alive. It brings something tangible, something that is experienced by every human being, into a sentence that is otherwise highly abstract.

* * *

My third daughter was born a week ago today with an excess of fluid collected in her lungs. She spent the first two days of her life in a neonatal intensive care unit. As I sat by her side in the hospital, watching her with breathing tubes in her nostrils, an IV in her arm, and a gazillion wires coming from various places on her body to monitor this and that, I experienced many strong and profound emotions. I’m pretty sure none of them would be labeled “Happiness”.

* * *

Human beings have a large set of emotions they experience. These days, we simply take it as self-evident that Happiness is the ultimate emotion, the one we ought to pursue above all others. We spend a lot of time and energy obsessing about how to be happy, but is there truly a hierarchy of emotions, with happiness at the top? Or is this just an idea that Jefferson planted in our heads 231 years ago, and has grown so large today that we cannot get around it?

* * *

Happiness is a positive, but selfish emotion. It’s about me, how well things are going for me. I experienced positive emotions while sitting in the hospital, but I wouldn’t call those emotions “Happiness” because they had nothing to do with me at all. When I think about how I felt sitting in the neonatal ICU, holding this small child with all the tubes and wires sticking out of her, the one word that comes to mind is tenderness.

Tenderness is a social emotion, not a selfish one. It’s about caring for someone else, about wanting to attend to another person’s well-being, above and beyond your own. It’s both positive and negative at once: positive in that you want to make this other person grow and thrive and flourish, and negative in that you recognize how delicate and fragile life can be. The feeling is deeper, and more profound, than any shallow happiness can ever be.

* * *

My daughter is home now, healthy and growing. I got some good sleep last night, my first good rest in a long time. It is the happiest I’ve felt in weeks. But how I feel doesn’t really matter.

Look up “happiness research” on the web, and you get all sorts of information about how human beings can, do, and ought to behave. Happiness researchers will provide statistical evidence that having additional children won’t make you any happier.

Humbug. I think that happiness researchers, like happiness itself, are somewhat besides the point. Look up “tenderness research“, and all you get are articles about beef. A lot of people, I think, are barking up the wrong cow.

* * *

Humans are social beings, with social emotions, and we pursue our social connections–creating families, making friends, joining political parties, attending churches, volunteering, becoming sports fans–for reasons that go beyond our own personal happiness.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but wonder: what would our world be like today, if Jefferson had written that among our unalienable rights were “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Tenderness”?