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It Goes Without Saying
by Andy Cowan
TheSyndicatedNews columnist

Andy Cowan, an award-winning writer, whose credits include Cheers and Seinfeld, regularly contributes humor pieces to the Los Angeles Times and the CBS Jack FM Radio Network.

We’re all guilty of it – conversational fluff. Those snippets of idle chitchat that pass for something meaningful. Whether initiating it or being fed it, I’m usually aware of the fact it’s taking place. Them: “Take care!” Me: “You, too!” What does “take care” really mean? Be sure to bundle up, because the flu is going around? Be sure to have your daily intake of food, because without it, you’ll die? Or does the aforementioned exchange of ideas simply boil down to “I’m done talking to you now.” “Me, too.”

People say a lot of things they really don’t mean. A case in point is “How are you,” a query that should have been put out to pasture long ago. If the interrogator really wanted to know how I was, they would stick around for the details. Me: “I’m a little nauseous.” Them, as they pass out of sight: “Take care!” I am taking care. Otherwise, I’d be a lot nauseous. “How are you?” is such a rhetorical question that it often goes unanswered twice. Me: “How are you?” Them: “How are you?” And the both of us scurry off without ever discovering the verdicts. Am I left to presume that how I am is more important than how you are? Will you not know how you are until you hear how I am? If I’m good, will you be good? Or will you be lousy, because you’d hoped I’d be lousy?

One of my favorite meaningless remarks is “Keep in touch.” That’s another way of saying, “Call us, because Lord knows, we won’t be calling you.” Or how about, “You photograph well.” Why don’t they come out and admit it. “In real life, you look lousier.” One thing I’m pretty sure of. If I ever make it to ninety, I don’t want people telling me, “You look great!” They never told me that when I was twenty. Why should a few liver spots change things?

Another compliment I have a difficult time taking to heart is, “You smell good.” If I really smell good, it’s not me you’re smelling – it’s my aftershave. I could have stayed home and mailed you my Mennen. Or what about this virtue, occasionally extolled by grandmothers: “He eats well!” That’s usually when the food being consumed was cooked by them, and not the other grandmother.

A multitude of messages can be classified as having little meaning when they begin by denying their underlying intentions. “I don’t mean to pry, but…” is a sure sign the speaker does mean to pry. “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” You guessed it. They’re about to make Miss Manners flinch. I don’t mean to belabor this point, but… Now pretend I proceed to provide you with twenty more examples.

One of the emptiest utterances to ever bog down the English language is “Y’know,” y’know? How often do you really know when someone says “y’ know,” y’know? For that matter, how often do they know you know, when they say “y’know,” y’know?

It’s ironic that in a world of cell phones, where the opportunities for communication are now seemingly endless, empty utterances are still the order of the day.

Guy on cell phone: “So I go, hey, dude, whatever.”

Excuse me? Did you really “go” it? Or… did you “say” it? If it’s the former, and your conversation with “the dude” already happened, you still didn’t “go” it. You “went” it.

Guy: “Like what’s your problem?”

Like what’s? Not just plain “what’s?” Are you implying the English language needs to produce a more precise replacement that’s like “what’s” but not quite “what’s?” Maybe then you’ll be able to use this new word all by itself. And save “like” for when you really need it. As in “I like to barely speak English.”

“Thank you” is often loosely tossed about, to the point where its significance can’t be taken very seriously. We even thank people for inviting us to sit down. If we’re obliged to offer thanks to someone for letting us bend our backside, are we really living in a free society? I’ve noticed that stores sometimes have a sarcastic way of saying thank you. You‘ll see what I mean the next time you puff on a cigarette and encounter the sign, “Thank you for not smoking.” Or when you enter a store just to get change, and spot, “Thanks for your patronage.” Why not say what’s on their minds: “Thanks for your patronage, tightwad.”

Even news readers don’t mean what they say when they wish us all a “great weekend” at the end of their Friday newscasts. All of us? Does that include the terrorist they just reported about? Shouldn’t he have a rotten weekend? What if I get run over by a bus on Wednesday? On Thursday, they’d report my death, and on Friday, they’d already be wishing my next of kin a great weekend. Pretty insensitive, if you ask me.

In the end, I suppose saying what you mean, and/or meaning what you say, isn’t always possible or appropriate in this complicated world of ours.

Well, take care.

Published: Jul 14,2008 14:03
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