It was 25 years ago, so I don’t remember the details of my complaint, but I remember Anne Hildreth’s advice as clearly as if it was yesterday. I must have been griping about some poor service I received or an answer I was given by some business. Anne was a bit younger than me, but already on her way to becoming a tenured professor in New York. Her voice already had that air of authority.
“What you have to say to them is this,” she instructed, slowing her voice and emphasizing each syllable. “That’s not acceptable.” The phrase “not acceptable” felt like a strong drug — a dangerous dose of passivity, condescension, and judgment, all rolled into one.
Those magic words would express my displeasure, without admitting any of the vulnerability that disappointment would reveal. I could raise my voice, without appearing to care. That phrase, delivered with a tone of detachment, would allow me to float above the fray. I would be doing them a favor by bothering to observe and then pronounce my judgment: Unacceptable.
I probably called the company back the next day with my new verbal weapon, and maybe it produced a different outcome. Or maybe not.
I should have known I was playing with fire. We humans devised language to connect with one another. (One of our first warnings may have been about fire, for all we know.) But now we’re revising language to obscure those connections. We’re writing ourselves out of the script of our daily interactions.
A passive voice has crept into our everyday language. It’s creating grammatical distance between us. We feel less connected to one another because we’ve learned to talk in ways that doesn’t affirm those connections.
I hadn’t been married long before I noticed how people refer to their marriage as the wedding, and almost always in the passive voice. “We got married three years ago,” as if it was done to us, and as if it was completed that sunny Saturday afternoon. And so, on Day Two of married life, the marriage is described as something that is over and done with.
These are the thoughts that keep us English majors up at night.
We use our words carefully, hoping to keep our world well organized. I hope those those around me benefit. Now notice how we’re training ourselves to say that same thing: “Hopefully, those around me benefit.”
Can you hear the difference? What’s missing from the second sentence? Hope is the central point, and yet I’ve removed the pronoun, so who is doing the hoping? It sounds as if the hope is its own agent. Whatever is occurring is happening “hopefully.”
If I’m not doing the hoping, then I don’t risk disappointment. Or so we say. But it’s not true. We sound protected, even if we aren’t.
We remove ourselves from other phrases just as well. We use “need to” as a substitute for “must” because it sounds less aggressive. But really, it’s just passive aggressive. Is that an improvement? I don’t think so.
By refusing to identify ourselves in our own language, we make our world a less active place. We talk less about our rights and more about what we’re entitled to. We talk less about who hurt us and more about how we’ve been victimized.
Politicians and others who are careful with language have perfected the absent admission: “Mistakes were made” — as if somebody left a mistake alone in a dark room and the making got made. Who made a mistake? Nobody. Mistakes were made.
Do you see how this subtly shifts our position in the world from doers to watchers? We’re stuck behind a thick pane of emotional glass, reporting what we’re seeing and registering our opinions on it all, but apparently unwilling — and therefore powerless — to change it.
We’ve learned to describe ourselves as passive observers of our own lives. No wonder we find changing things so difficult.
Hopefully, we’ll change how we talk, because we need to. Or else mistakes will be made. And, as we know ….
That’s not acceptable.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.