For the week of September 2 thru September 8, 1998  

Hi, there, how are ‘ya?

 Commentary by JoEllen Collins

"Hi, there, how are ‘ya?"

"Fine, how are you?"

"Great. Sure wish this weather would change, though."

"Yep. I’m tired of it, too."

This brief exchange, typical of the chit-chat most of us engage in every day, reveals much more than it seems about the human beings speaking and serves as a reminder of the prime function of language, communication. It doesn’t always matter that what we say to each other makes perfect sense; sometimes we just use words to make a connection, even when we may not be eloquent or even entirely truthful in doing so.

How many times have we really wanted to hear how someone feels? But we ask how people are as a social bridge. Do we want a truthful reply? I think most of us prefer the sometime less-than-exact, "Fine." Hearing the details of one’s aches and pains, marital problems or child-rearing woes is probably best saved for a more quiet time with an understanding friend. Like using smiley faces on correspondence, we often use clichés that belie the reality of life.

How many of us, if we temporarily forget or misplace someone’s name, use "Hi, there" as a substitute?

How many times have you discussed the weather when, of all subjects, it is futile to change? We don’t really live our lives as much around our physical environment as our daily language would indicate, even in Idaho. Talking about the weather is a common way for people to break the ice, to indicate as a smile does, that we are glad to be communicating with that person.

How many of us have experienced that awkward moment when someone we know is approaching, and the air seems devoid of meaningful ways to greet one another? Perhaps with some averting of eyes, or momentary shyness, soon we are close enough to speak. What does one say? The other day I was about 50 feet from a woman I recognized vaguely but didn’t know. As we approached, she broke the silence by saying, "Working hard, eh?" I heartily replied with some inanity like, "Oh well, life in the salt mines!" Upon reflection, the conversation was drivel. At that moment I wasn’t working at all, just walking between buildings, so her assessment that I was working hard had no literal connection to reality. If I had been carting a heavy box or been at my computer, it would have been appropriate. And my response was inane: even if I had been doing a task, I don’t really feel like I work in a salt mine or anything near it, so encouraging the illusion of complicity with her feigned sympathy for my state was ludicrous.

I only thought of the incident as I started this column because it illustrates so clearly the non-literal function of language. The point of our brief verbal interchange was not to ascertain my attitude about my workplace but rather to fill a silence with some kind of dialogue, even though it was almost meaningless. in a literal sense. The meaning was in what actors call the sub-text. Underneath the words was an implied message, which was that we were friendly people who had opened a bit of communication in a light-hearted greeting. That we didn’t know each other’s names didn’t matter. We were two human beings occupying the same physical space for a few brief moments in life. Words helped us fill the gap we experience in various situations.

Our language is rich with non-literal expressions. We call a car a "lemon" when it has soured on us. Obviously we don’t see a fat lemon driving on wheels. We accept the non-literal usage of words in many situations. When being taken on a tour of someone’s home and the host says, "Here’s the bathroom," we don’t respond with, "Well duh! You think I can’t see?" Instead we smile and comment on its design.

I fear the prospect of being a garrulous old woman, ranting on and on or getting off the track by sideways anecdotes and reminiscences. At the same time, as I get older I find myself less able to banter easily with strangers. I do crave meaningful exchanges with people I enjoy.

Yet I, too, often find myself indulging in small talk, especially in my brief work exchanges with the many parents, teachers and students I encounter each day. Often I am tempted to edit myself, to try to have more depth in my conversations. The truth is that attempting to go beyond the superficial in those exchanges is not only futile but probably inappropriate. We are meant to skim the surface of our lives through using language in this non-literal way. To do otherwise would be to risk a kind of uninvited and maybe even brutal honesty.

Other clues help us separate the glancing questions about our health from the serious ones, of course. Body language and tonal stresses can make a simple "How are you" fraught with true inquiry. Perhaps the person asking the question emphasizes the "are" and looks you closely in the eye. That tells you he probably wants to know, for example, how your physical therapy is going.

My writing is a one-sided attempt to communicate with others. I try not to be too superficial in letting you all know I am really "fine" today. I truly hope you are too. Have a nice day.


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