Word-watching, as a conscious and deliberate practice available to everyone, is an idea that crystallized in my mind some months ago, but the seed took hold several years back during the Sunday family reunions of my childhood.
Impressionable Eyes and Ears
Our large extended family offered my many cousins a backdrop of happy memories, a source of some adult maladjustment, and the stuff good novels are made of. For me, the setting gave birth to an observant and questioning mind and a lifelong preoccupation with WORDS.
My mother had six siblings who each had three to seven children so a usual Sunday lunch at my maternal grandparents’ house meant a scramble for parking space. There was also the inevitable drama which sometimes started early on, while parking. At lunch, an argument would invariably come up between one or more aunts and uncles which would end up with an aunt or two, or my mother storming off in a huff.
At 7 years of age, I came to the conclusion that women are high-strung, reactive, and domineering while men are laid-back provocateurs spewing mild sarcasm, with a smile for added impact. I also observed that people don’t listen to what they are saying, much less to what the other person is saying.
Arguing Seemed to be the Norm
As we cousins grew up, the drama became part of the entertainment. We would sit around the airy comedor and adjacent sala after lunch, clustered naturally by age group, playing games or just hanging out.
Among the elders, any innocent-sounding declarative sentence always resulted in an explosion of debates, cross arguments, and simultaneous heated discussions.
It would be about the smallest of things like which distant relative’s offspring is taking care of the fruit trees in the province, the quickest route to get to the bank, a tentative compliment of an aunt’s “improved” nose, or whether the roasted pork had more cholesterol than the spicy beef.
We cousins carried on, used to “our normal.”
In the heated exchange, it was obvious to anyone half listening that they were arguing FOR the same point. But they were too angry to notice, intent on proving the other wrong.
We cousins would look at each other with questioning faces and then break out in snickers. It never crossed our mind to point this out to our elders. The accepted rule of a time gone by was: The younger generation – some already in their mid 20′s and married – were forbidden to take part in the elders’ conversation, much less interrupt! That suited us just fine because it was truly hilarious to watch them get all worked up where every impassioned rebuttal actually strengthened the other person’s point.
A Universal Human Shortcoming
Years later when I started working, I witnessed similar scenarios in all kinds of settings among different groups – traversing various cultures and languages – and spilling over to written exchanges with the message getting lost in translation.
The conclusion of many years ago applies now. We humans do not pay attention to what others communicate, yet we are quick to react.
Word-watching is essential. It is a deliberate process that begins first with us and the words WE think and say.