Monday, May 12, 2014

It's All In How You Say It

I'm a competent writer. I can usually get the point across without too much effort, but sometimes it takes a bit to make sure that the proper tone is used.

I remember one time, a number of years ago, I was asked to draft 5 letters for a Baha'i agency to inform people that their cheque had bounced. They wanted 5 different versions so that they could compare tone and see which was the most appropriate. I could understand that. No problem. Or so I thought.

The first version began with a very nice "Dearly loved Friend". It went on to say that we understood that sometimes these things happen, and that it isn't really much of a problem, just a simple oversight, but could they please, you know and so on and so forth.

The next draft was a bit more firm, but still exceedingly polite.

Four letters were written, each with a different style, and I was totally stumped for a fifth. I tried, really I did. But I drew a complete blank. Nothing. Nada. Zip. So I began, "Dear Bozo", and continued "Can't you do math?" It was so completely over the top that it was almost therapeutic. I was practically crying with laughter by the time I finished.

And so I printed all five, relishing the thought of my boss's expression on reading the last one, explaining that I just couldn't come up with a fifth for him, and chucking it in the bin, with nothing more than a mild memory of amusement. I wasn't too worried. He was, after all, well known for his sense of humour. A few minutes later he popped his head in my office and asked if I had them done. I was more then happy to hand him the letters, and bummed out when he took them and disappeared.

It was about an hour later that he came back with something of a stern expression on his face. (I am, if nothing else, a master of understatement.)

It seems that he went straight to the photocopier, made 9 copies and practically ran upstairs to his meeting with the National Spiritual Assembly. Without even glancing at the copies, he passed them around for everyone to consult on which one to use. I still shake with laughter at the thought of that meeting. (I understand that they read them aloud, one at a time, and that he paused at "Dear Bo...") (My eyes are still tearing up at the image of that moment.) (And I still recall one of the elder members of that Assembly encountering me in the lunchroom and, with a smirk, mumbling under his breath "Bozo" to me. We both just lost it, and everyone was staring at us trying to figure out what he possibly could have said to make us both practically fall over laughing. Neither of us would tell.)

'Abdu'l-Baha, of course, was fully aware of the importance of saying things in a way that would be least likely to offend.  He said that when discussing matters with another person, and you find you disagree with them, rather than challenge them, we should be conciliatory and courteous. He said "we should speak as if we are investigating the truth, saying: 'Here these things are before us. Let us investigate to determine where and in what form the truth can be found.'"

Sometimes it's the tone of voice. Other times it's the words themselves. I recall one image I saw recently that said that arguments are 10% difference of opinion and 90% the way we say it. Whether or not that's true, for 78% of all statistics like that are made up on the spot, I think there is a degree of truth in it.

Just the other day I was at a reflection meeting and wanted to know the desired outcome of it so that I could better work towards it. I came dangerously close to asking what the purpose of meeting was, only changing that at the last moment to asking what the goal was. "What's the goal of this meeting" is very different from "What's the purpose of being here?"

I remember another time when my now ex-wife came home one day and was so excited. She was bouncing up and down saying, "I just got a sewing table! Now I can sew it all together." Without thinking, obviously, I said, "Sew what?" Now that may look nice and innocent in type, but it sounds like unfortunately the same as "So what?" Fortunately I was quick enough to react and say, "I meant what are you going to sew." (I think that qualifies as a near-death experience.)

Usually I'm on the giving end of awkward phrasing, but there was one time I recall too vividly of being on the receiving end. Marielle (my, spoiler alert, now-wife) and I had been doing a lot of studying of the Writings, and engaging in service together. I knew that I, for one, had begun to, as they say, check her out. So when she phoned me up one afternoon and said that we had to "talk" (ominous organ music in the background, please), I was, understandably, nervous. We went to a coffee shop (which I also vividly recall) (The Second Cup on Corydon in Winnipeg), I got a cup of coffee for myself and a tea for her. We went outside to their patio, sat down, and she began to speak.

"You're a nice guy, but..."

And that's all I heard for the next few minutes.

Inside I was crying out, "Nooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!" My poor heart felt as if it were fracturing, tears were welling up in my eyes. I felt as if my hoped-for future had been dashed to the ground and unceremoniously stomped flat. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes: they all raged inside the landscape of my soul. I could hear Elmer Fudd crying out "SMOG!" I was certain that my lower lip must have been trembling, but I really didn't want her to notice, for I would never, ever, do anything to try and coerce her into a relationship she felt uncertain of, or even worse, undesirous of.

And when the blizzard of white noise began to subside, a few nano-seconds alter, I heard her saying something about marriage and children and investigation of character and all those other catchphrases of sheer delight and bliss. I don't think I have ever pendulumed so quickly from one extreme emotion to another so fast. It must have been some sort of drug-free world record.

Only now, years later, do I recognize that English wasn't her first language, so of course she wouldn't have known about the "you're a nice guy but" assassination phrase of the male soul.

Yup. Phrasing is everything. Oh, and so is tone of voice.

So now, when I'm sharing some of the ideas of the Faith with people (or, in Baha'i parlance, teaching), I try to be aware of loaded terms. For some people, "spiritual" instead of "religious", and others "reality" instead of "God". I'm only now beginning to be aware that people in British Columbia tend to phase out anything about community building, but are very interested in individual development. I mean, not everyone, of course, but just as a general rule. And talking about the Spirit of Christ is just as easy as talking about attaining Nirvana. They're all the same to me, so I don't really care which phrase I use. But if choosing one word over another can help prevent a wall from going up inside, why not use it. After all, teaching is about reaching out from one heart to another. It's not about words, but about spirit. It's all in how you say it.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, they didn't choose that last letter. They went for the first one.


  1. You are a jewel. Great job on the article. Bahai love to your wife.

  2. One of my favourite articles...