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Say What You Mean

Friday - 10/08/2021 — When I moved to Georgia from Vermont 28 years ago, it took me a while to “get” the difference between a question that expected an answer and a question that expected a set, unvarying response. I used to answer questions as if they were true questions.

“Hey there,” for instance, “how are you?”

Silly me. I told people how I was. You wouldn’t believe their looks of incredulity. It took me a while to learn that when someone here in Georgia said, How are you?—or any variation thereof, such as How ya’ doin’ or How’s it goin’—the expected answer was Fine. How are you? Then they’d say Fine and the conversation could resume. Or rather it could begin, since that first interchange was not truly conversational in any form. It was simply the flourish of the conductor’s baton before the first notes were sounded.

I think I’ve probably written about this in some other post or blog or memoir, but just in case I haven’t—or even if I have—it’s a point worth making (or remaking). Why can’t we say what we mean and mean what we say?

Sometimes conversation is straightforward, like the white bowl with a blue line around it that I ate my soup from last night. Sometimes it’s a bit more convoluted, like this mug with its various splotches and with the understated pink line that runs up the inside of the handle—can you see it there on the right-hand side of this photo?

But regardless of how involved the conversation is, when people say what they mean, the talk seems more true, more relevant than it is when both parties are groping around trying to figure out what the other person’s motivations are.

Like the time 28 years ago when I met a woman who told me she was from a town south of Atlanta that had a fascinating history and a lovely public park in the middle of town. “You’ll have to come visit me sometime,” she said, at which point I whipped out my calendar and said, “I have time on the 28th.”

She recoiled as if I’d struck her.

She hadn’t meant what she’d said. My mistake was believing she had.

It was a hard lesson to learn, but learn it I did. Now I still try always to say what I mean and mean what I say, but I’ve also gotten better about not making the assumption that the rest of the world feels the same way I do.

Do you mean what you say and say what you mean?

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