11 Nov 2018 19:20 IST

What we say when we speak

Making choices is the very essence of being human and is ridden with complexities

Expectant mothers and fathers anxiously await the first discernible word their bundle of joy utters. The mother insists it is amma, the father insists it is babba. What the baby says seems more important than the fact that the baby has actually started to ‘talk’, and, in the normal course, will quickly learn to use ‘no’ as a tool of aggressive negotiation.

Of course, some babies resist: the more you try to coax consonants and vowels of a certain pattern out of their mouths, the more garbled the sounds that emerge. Babies know how to get their way all right. They say exactly what they mean without even enunciating it. A little fellow I know remained silent until he was almost four, and then he uttered his first word, which was the name of his friend. It’s a friendship that endures, over 20 years on.

Points of view

As we grow, physically and chronologically, vocabulary, ideas, imagination and a million other marvellous activities engage the brain, activities for which no scientific logic can ever offer a sufficiently plausible explanation even if explanations exists. Personalities develop and points of view emerge. Simultaneously, the opportunities to make these points of view known constantly arise.

But I have some questions. Do we always say what we mean? Do we speak what we really feel? Express what lies deepest in the heart, closest to what we believe is true, if not the truth itself? Are you one of those who comes right out with what’s on the tip of your tongue or uppermost in your mind? Or do you count till 10, temper your views? Do circumstances circumscribe opinions? What role do time and place play in what we contribute to a discussion? What about the company we’re in? Does that matter?

There can be a variety of responses given all these factors. For instance, in a delicate situation at work involving a boss, you may choose to choose your words more carefully than when you are in the company of someone who has little bearing on your life. How you speak with the parents of a friend may be different from the way you address yourself to the parents of a domestic help for, maybe, taking their slippers off and leaving them right in front of your door. The way you articulate a rebuke to a child you are not particularly fond of maybe different from the way that same rebuke is articulated to a favourite child. I know because I was the ‘victim’ of ‘reverse rebuke’, if I may call it that, by being the principal’s favourite at school. My maths notebooks were always held up — and open — by her for viewing by the rest of the class as an example of how a schoolgirl’s maths notebook should look. As far as my class fellows and I could tell, it was a mess, naturally. Besides, I was lousy at maths. Further, there were plenty of girls whose notebooks were genuinely beautiful: neat handwriting, numbers clearly written, no scratching, sums correctly done.

Shattering words

The temptation to say what people want to hear is a very difficult temptation to resist. For one, it wins friends. For another, nobody gets hurt. It’s feel-good thing. Let’s assume you’re the boss and you want an opinion from a young team member. After some hesitation, she somehow conveys that she doesn’t think what you’re proposing is a good idea. The moment you hear the negative tones in her voice, your back starts to stiffen. Having taken the decision to jump off the cliff, your young team member decides not to hold back, she tells you what’s wrong and even suggests how to right it before she ends up splash in the swirling dark waters of death by harakiri. By now the blood is rushing hot to your brain and you light into her. Meanwhile, her colleagues pull the sword out of her chest, all the while saying, “Serves you right! Why did you have to go and open your mouth?” But she, sodding bloody as she is, continues to whimper: “She asked and I said. What’s wrong with that?”

Reverse this situation. This time, you — the boss — have to evaluate a piece of work done by your team member. You look at it, it really isn’t up to the mark. So you tell her it doesn’t work. She rushes out of the room in a flood of tears. Her team-mates console her. Your peers berate you. The shoddy work passes muster. Luckily or unluckily for me, when I was a young journalist on my first job straight out of college, I ran into a bull of a boss. This was back in the days of typewriters and carbon copies. I had worked really hard on a story and handed it in, expecting praise, maybe even a raise. He looked at it, about three pages of typed text, ripped it to shreds — I mean, literally, he tore the papers into eight parts — and threw it out of the window — again, literally, his desk was beside the window. Then he launched into all that was wrong with it and I returned to my desk, chastened, to quietly rewrite the piece. This time I sent it to him through Prabhat bhai, our most cheerful attender. It appeared in its entirety in the following day’s newspaper.

Hold your tongue?

You don’t need to have an opinion on everything, is something my son often tells me. Really! I respond. He then amends it to you don’t have to make your opinion known every time. Hmm, maybe. Sort of like the advice Polonius offers to Laertes in Act I Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Give thy thoughts no tongue,

Nor any unproportioned thought his act.

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;

But do not dull thy palm with entertainment

Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware

Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,

Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;

Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Wise words. Now, after all these years, they make sense. They didn’t when I was younger! But it’s so simple. How we articulate our views or our thoughts is as important as what we say. One way is to reflect objectively and truthfully, and then speak with diplomacy and compassion. There are other ways: through kindness, through humour, free from emotion, the right moment. Many ways.

But what if there’s no time for all this and you have to speak right now? Yes, indeed, what then?