“Hey, that’s not so bad.” It took me decades to realize that “not so bad” does not equal good. Anxious is not the same as eager. Feeling better is not the same as feeling well. Saving is not the same as a great sale. Common phrases subconsciously color our perceptions and our actions.
Once upon a time I worked at Boeing. Through luck or an open-mind, I got to work with people from Spain, Italy, Iran (the Shah’s regime), Iran (the Ayatollah’s regime), Iraq, Sweden (or was it Norway and I won’t ask because that’s a touchy subject), Russia, the Ukraine, India, China, Japan, Brazil, and oh yeah, England. In one group I was the only one born in America. Political debates weren’t Republican versus Democrat. We had capitalist, anarchist, socialist, communist, theocratic, republican and imperialist. Politics were intriguing. The potlucks were fun. English was the common language, but it was simplified with words consciously chosen.
Visiting engineers would steer through the gift shop for souvenirs. They didn’t need a guide. These were intelligent and educated experts, but sometimes a nuance of our chaotic language would steer them into unexpectedly non-sensical conversations. “On Sale Now” sounded like it should be the same as “For Sale”, or simply “Sale”. I could tell that the one set of items was “finally available to buy” and the other set was “can be bought for less than usual”. One time, for the first few lines of dialogue Boeing’s guest sounded confused as he tried to clarify the distinction with the clerk. His one quick grin convinced me that the guest was having fun making fun of English while playfully possibly providing the clerk with a new perspective. I rescued her from her confusion after it was obvious that progress would only be possible after her nervous breakdown.
Cliches and familiar phrases carry meanings that may not match the words. Usually the difference doesn’t matter, unless you believe in the power of words.
Imagine someone who started conversations with, “So, what’s wrong today?” For years I didn’t give it a thought. Then I heard it and thought it was normal. Then I thought it was because of my attitude. Later I realized that he started conversations with a straightforward thrust to any bad news that must be dealt with. Small talk, pleasantries, and euphemisms were wastes of time if there was something to be done. A very efficient way to fight fires.
Finally I called with a bunch of good news. Right after the response from my hello the conversation was reset to imminent crisis. I stepped the conversation through: no crisis; really, no crisis; things are good; no, I’m not kidding; so, here’s the good news. The reply, “Oh, well, that’s not bad.” It wasn’t until later that I realized that “not bad” was as close as he would get to saying the news was “good”. Most of the time was spent digging out of a conversational hole that never got back to the level of celebration that inspired the conversation.
How much time is wasted from such simple detours?
Even reputations are self-wounded. I like language and don’t go around correcting people’s dialogue except when I hear someone make a mistake and they apologize by saying, “Sorry, I lied.” Most of the time they didn’t lie, deceive, or intentionally mislead. They made a mistake. Instead of admitting to imperfect knowledge, admitting that they were wrong, they impugned their character by branding themselves a lier.
Some detours are intentional. Advertising campaigns access our imperfect correlation between language and meaning. “New and Improved”, but new isn’t always good and improved is a point of view. “Best in its class” is best by some criterion and I might not like the class it’s in.
Politicians wage war the same way. The media matches them. Unemployment is up, or down. That’s describing a positive of a negative, or a negative of a negative. In either case, a negative is involved. The positive is employment. How many people are working? The ups and downs can be reported, but with a different emphasis. People are working? Great! Can we get more people working? Definitely. Let’s get to work on that.
On a pragmatic level, my personal finances became easier to understand and manage when I understood my reaction to words. A large part of that was recognizing my values, and noticing that my values, goals, and incentives weren’t the same as those of the advertisers, politicians, and media. I wasn’t cheap. I was frugal. They weren’t saving me money. The price may be lower, but it was still a price that I might not want to pay. Labor and time saving devices could cost too much if their price meant spending more time making the money for the purchase. Decreased taxes sounds good until I realized that it means services had been decreased too far and that debt had risen too high. I learned that my values, wants, and needs were easier to meet than I’d expected.
New lost its power. Improved was treated with skepticism. Old and used is probably proven and less expensive, especially if I already own it. Enough isn’t measured by some generic algorithm designed by financial institutions for the average of everyone. My enough is different and specific.
Some of those familiar phrases are taught as exercises in manners. Humility is healthy, but not if it becomes personally dismissive.
Accepting compliments, humbly, has a nice effect on conversations. Acknowledging their point of view places a positive on a positive without stretching a truth. Topics flow and the talk is much more fun. I’m getting better at it, and I even appreciate my art more. Though the complimentary comparisons to Money, van Gogh, and Ansel Adams still surprise me. Really? Cool. Thank you. Really?
I may not feel completely well, but I feel better. I am less anxious and more eager about my future. My attitude has improved, and I wonder if that’s why my health has improved. My confidence in my skills is rising.
Life is good.