Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Conversational Lubricants

For some people the writings of Theodore Dalrymple are an acquired taste. I do not count myself in that group. I find Dalrymple’s writings to be an unalloyed delight, for reasons that I shall try to make clear in this post.

After all, Dalrymple is a retired psychiatrist and man of letters whose tastes run toward the antiquated. This makes him my kind of guy.

In a recent column on “The Pleasures of Perfidy” Dalrymple explains that one day he chanced upon a rather old book about how best to word one’s epistolary productions. Link here.

The book in question is Robert Pelham’s: How Shall I Word It? – a Letter Writer for Men and Women on Domestic and Business Subjects.  It was first published in 1901.

I am grateful to Ari Mendelson for having brought the column to my attention.

One might say that the book, which I have not read, offers some lessons in how to sharpen your communication skills. I venture that in many quarters these lessons will be unwelcome.

Naturally, Pelham’s book is seriously out of date. Between twitter and texting we seem to have opted for brevity. No one writes florid missives in the style of Henry James any more, and very few people torment themselves over questions of how best to phrase a request or to deny an entreaty.

They are wrong to ignore this aspect of human communications, but such is modern life.

In Pelham’s world, people worked very, very hard to find the most tactful expression of their thoughts and feelings. They twisted their sentences into knots in order to void giving offense.

His was a world where people were very, very slow to take offense. When they did, they did not gripe, complain, or file grievances, but defended themselves with the kind of decorum that their world would have thought proper.

Evidently, Pelham's book met with considerable success, since Dalrymple came upon an edition dated 1943.

Speaking about the copy he found, he remarked: “This edition was published in August, 1943, at the height of the war, when extermination was under full swing. It is curious to think that, while people were being gassed at one end of Europe, other people were fretting about how to address a letter correctly to a Dowager Duchess. Since then, of course (and not unconnectedly), vulgarity, being democratically achievable by all, has become a virtue, and daintiness a kind of treason to the self.”

It might be hard for us to imagine since we live in a world where the least offense becomes a convenient excuse to dispense with propriety and give full voice to our outrage, but etiquette was serious business in England. So serious that even a major war was not considered to be sufficient reason to encourage vulgar behavior.

As Dalrymple suggests, we have long since taken our leave of such civilized niceties.

In our new world, we all believe that we should say what we have to say, straight from the heart or the gut, as you will, and should say it directly and honestly, regardless of the effect that it may have on the hapless recipient.

The notion that you might say the same thing politely or impolitely, and that you should aspire to the former, seems not to have penetrated the modern consciousness.

This means that what we call open, honest, and direct communication is also lazy communication. It requires the least effort, and, dare I say, the least feel for the feelings of others.

Dalrymple explains: “On the other hand, it [polite expression] requires effort, discipline and self-control in its fulfillment; it does not suggest that you should just do the easiest thing, take the line of least resistance, on all possible occasions. It is a stimulus to self-respect and is other-regarding; for to make a good impression, you have to put yourself in the position of others.”

Looking to say things in the right way, so as best to lubricate your conversations, to say nothing of your relationships, requires a number of character traits that have long since fallen into desuetude.

I do recognize the great challenge of lubricating without being unctuous, but I will leave that for another day.

By now I am sure you are looking forward to reading some of Pelham’s archaic expressions.

I would recommend that we look at them in the right spirit. We should ask ourselves why we do not even try to craft sentences that demonstrate a similar degree of civility, courtesy, and respect.

I would add that none of these expressions involves lying. They are alternative ways of expressing something that requires expression.

One example concerns the rather quaint notion of a man’s fiancee appearing to be too much of a flirt. The man does not confront her directly, to her face, with an accusation. He sends off a missive expressing his dismay.

Pelham’s formulation looks like this: “I feel sure that in your case it simply arose from a love of enjoyment, and the exuberance of our spirits, but if it gives you pleasure to amuse yourself by coquetting with other men at the expense of my feelings, I am deeply disappointed in you.”

Note that the letter does not contain any accusations. It does express his feelings. It is about the appearance of impropriety. There once was a time when people cared about such things. And he does not threaten the woman; it only seeks to bring to her attention what he had espied.

How should the lady respond? According to Pelham she should write: “Your words have stung me deeply, for, as you say, no self-respecting woman likes to be called a flirt, and I am not one.”

Most modern relationships are not shipwrecked on the rocks of excessive flirting. Can you imagine a modern couple worrying itself about an appearance of flirtatiousness?

In the interest of full disclosure, I did hear of a case a few years ago where a woman’s tendency to flirt openly with other men in front of her significant other did cause her relationship to disintegrate.She was, dare I say, seriously incommoded by the break up, but maintained that it was her constitutional right to flirt, and besides, she had not cheated.

The late Victorian lady denied the accusation and seems to have apologized for having given her fiance or anyone else the impression that she had been behaving improperly.

But then, she managed to assert her dignity and self-respect, by adding: “Having made my apology, I am desirous of making you withdraw your harsh words.”

Meaning: it’s time for you to eat your words!

As a picture of late Victorian mores, this exchange tells us that women were not expected to be weak and pliant, tools in the hands of the patriarchy. They were expected to assert and defend their dignity.

Dalrymple asks whether human relationships conducted in so polite a fashion will necessarily become tepid, lacking in passion.

At the least, they will be lacking in drama. Considering the effort these people made to prevent misunderstandings from escalating into wars, they must not have believed that friction was the royal road to intimacy.

Now, let’s look at another highly awkward human problem, the one where you might feel obliged to reject someone with whom you have been romantically involved, even engaged to.

I would guess that most people today do not know how to effect an elegant rejection, and perhaps for that reason they tend to hang on to relationships longer than they should.

The examples from Pelham’s book are too formal and too polite for anyone to adopt today, but they do show how you can deliver bad news while trying your best not to hurt the other person’s feelings or to act as the perfect clod.

A woman who is calling off her engagement might write as follows: “Week after week I have put off writing this letter to you partly because of the pain I know it will inflict on you, and partly in the hope that time might do away with the necessity for writing it, for it is to tell you that I do not and cannot feel for you that deep love which a woman should feel for the man she intends to marry.”

The information is clear and to the point. Yet, the woman is showing respect for herself and her fiance.

Her reputation will be somewhat damaged by her failure to go through with her marriage, but the wording of her response will at least attenuate some of the damage.

If you would like to measure how much we have lost, I would recommend a quick reading of a song by Sara Bareilles.

The song, entitled “King of Anything” is a self-righteous display of contempt and arrogance toward a man she is dismissing from her life. Puffed up on her own indignation, she treats him like an unwelcome piece of lint on her sweater.

Some people thrill to the girlpower that seems manifest in the song, but it is really a declaration of war. It does not assert power; it shows off her own emotional incontinence.

The verses:

"Keep drinking coffee, stare me down across the table
While I look outside
So many things I’d say if only I were able
But I just keep quiet and count the cars that pass by

"You’ve got opinions, man
We’re all entitled to ‘em, but I never asked
So let me thank you for your time, and try not to waste anymore of mine
And get out of here fast

"I hate to break it to you babe, but I’m not drowning
There’s no one here to save

"Who cares if you disagree?
You are not me
Who made you king of anything?
So you dare tell me who to be?
Who died and made you king of anything?"

Anyone who can dismiss a former lover with that kind of  contempt, all the while blaming it entirely on him, is someone you seriously do not want to get involved with.

Forewarned is forearmed.

1 comment:

flynful said...

Theodore Dalrymple

I knew the name was familiar. He writes articles from time to time for www.city-journal.org. I also enjoy his wit and humor. I went to their archives and found more than 200 of his articles that I bookmarked for rainy days.

I read the other day that many schools are giving up the teaching of cursive letters, or handwriting. We will soon become a nation of print-only boobs, who will not be able to read a handwritten letter. So, the care that was once (and so recently) taken to craft a polite but firm letter will be reduced to using "you" instead of "u" when texting bad news.


Steve G