I have written before about a growing lack of good manners, but recently I have observed several instances that make me fear that somehow we are losing a fundamental component of social interaction—the ability to speak decently to one another. Obscene language is endemic to the actions of most movies and certainly overwhelmingly evident elsewhere. I am not a prude in that regard: As a former high school English teacher and as an avid movie fan, I have long ago accepted the overuse of f-words and other even more offensive epithets. I do admit to being impatient with what I see as a lack of imagination on the part of screenwriters who deluge the audience with these words. Perhaps an attention to more complex language to express the human condition is disappearing.
I also think there are occasions when a good swear word is perfect for the release of a pent-up emotion. But, come on. All the time, and in inappropriate conditions? The other day I stopped in Shoshone on the way home from Twin Falls and, while waiting for my food to be prepared, I couldn't avoid overhearing the conversation of a young couple at a table just a few feet away. They had a baby perched on the table and the mother was reading the paper. She started to pass a section to her husband, and he said, "What the (bleep) ... are you doing?" She said, "Oh, I thought you'd like to see this riddle," to which he replied, "You know I'm not interested in the (bleeping) ... newspaper. (Bleep) off." I cringed, not only at the loud and crude display but at the prospects for this marriage and that child.
When I got home I wondered if perhaps I am just out of it, too much of a fuddy-duddy. Do many young couples talk that way to each other? Does language really reflect what I sense is a growing crassness? I turned on the TV deliberately, to some of the talk shows that encourage paternity tests and hostile interactions, to see if I was wrong. I don't think so. How people can expose themselves to such barrages of blipped words on national television and even seem proud they are there is beyond my comprehension. Are we truly so miserable and so uncaring that we have to wallow in obscenity and hurtful speech?
I really try not to be judgmental, even when I overhear student conversations about who "sucks," and of course there are lots of good, articulate and decent people everywhere. I had to go to Boise this week for a doctor's visit and once again indulged a craving for fast food. I stopped at Denny's for a forbidden grilled cheese sandwich and sat at the counter. About five wait and counter persons were gathered around the area where I attacked my greasy food. They were laughing and teasing and addressing each other in silly, enjoyable ways. No obscenities passed their lips, even though I can well imagine that their jobs are often demanding and underpaid. Maybe the presence of some of their regular customers at lunchtime was a positive sign, but as I listened, I realized that these people sounded happy, that they had a camaraderie lacking in many of our more profitable but solo occupations. When I left I thanked them for letting me share what was a nice few minutes of people interacting with kindness and good humor.
On the way home I reflected on the two experiences in fast food restaurants and all the thoughts I have been having recently about crass language and behavior. Maybe being polite and courteous is not only a reflection of cultural mores and one's upbringing but also an affirmation of a positive view of oneself in dealing with life's menu of good and bad experiences. My sense of the sadness and negative daily life of the couple in Shoshone supports that conclusion. How do we show the ways we value each other? Crass behavior and gross language not only signal a lack of proper parental values, education or both, but also, just possibly, a distress at one's own menial life. Thoreau said most of us lead lives of "quiet desperation." I hate that it may be so.
I'll try to remember that the next time I judge someone for or engage myself in rude behavior and language. Words have tremendous power: I am more convinced than ever that what we say reveals who we are. We are what we speak.