Friday, March 7, 2014

Saying the obvious

I was forced to conclude that there are two laws no human being can escape: the first idea that comes into a person's mind will be the most obvious one; and, having had an obvious idea, nobody ever thinks that others may have had the same idea before.
Umberto Eco, How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays


Recently I picked up  my car after it spent a week in a body shop, the second time in the last three years the same car has been in the same body shop. I hasten to add that on both occasions the damage to my car occurred while it was parked. The shop manager thanked me for my business, and I said something to the effect that I hoped I would never be back again. "I hear that all the time," he said.

As I drove away I felt embarrassed at having said the obvious. Of course, nobody wants to return to a body shop, just as nobody wants a return trip to a cancer specialist. I had said the first thing that entered my mind, and, as Umberto Eco suggests in his essay, the first idea is generally the same one everyone else has in the same situation.

Richard Kiel
I still suffer pangs of regret after an experience in a tea shop several years ago when the owner wondered if I might like to try some chamomile. "That's not my cup of tea," I said, it being the first thing that entered my mind. The woman, to her credit, did not react at all, but she must have heard the same line hundreds of times. Sometime later in the same shop I overheard somebody else repeating the same line to the same woman.

Actor Roger Moore, who played James Bond in a number of movies, touches on this topic in his commentary on the Moonraker DVD. He recalls how Richard Kiel, the huge actor who played the villain Jaws on a couple of Bond movies, hated being asked, "How big were you when you were small?" He had to pretend each time that it was the first time he had ever heard that line, a line that must have actually seemed witty the first time it was heard.

Moore also remembers Barry Morse, who played the detective on The Fugitive TV series, complaining, "I have to act surprised when people say, 'He went thataway.'"

There are times, of course, when saying the obvious is exactly what we should say. Phrases like "good morning," "thank you," "how are you?," "I'm sorry for your loss," "I love you," "take care now" and "excuse me" never get old. We need not feel regret for saying what so many others have said with the very same words.

When we are trying to be witty, however, saying the first thing that comes to mind will most likely be the wrong thing. Better to say nothing than to say what everybody else says in the same situation.

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