Thursday, August 4, 2016

Conversation rituals

There were no surprises in the answers such questions elicited -- there never were -- but these conversations still had to take place: it was not what was said that counted, but the fact that it was said.
Alexander McCall Smith, The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe

Alexander McCall Smith is writing about small talk, the exchange of pleasantries that always occurs whenever people come together. "How are you?" We ask each other. "Just fine," we reply. This is usually not the time for truth, or even sincerity. This is just a social ritual we all go through that may seem meaningless but, as Smith suggests in his novel, actually does carry meaning. After the ritual, with any luck, there may be a sharing of truth and sincerity. The ritual is something of a warmup, like a relief pitcher making a few throws before facing the first batter. It makes people more comfortable, whether they are with old friends or new acquaintances, and gives them an opportunity to consider what, if anything, to say next. Without the initial pleasantries, conversations would just seem less pleasant.

Before returning The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe to the shelf, there is one more passage deserving of a comment:

"I'm just expressing an opinion," said Phuti. "I am not one to judge these things. I am saying what I think."

We frequently say things like this. "It's just my opinion, but ..." "No offense intended, but ..." "Nothing personal, but ..." When we offer a compliment, of course, we never feel the need to qualify what we say. We just say it. Negative comments or actions seem to require some prologue to try to soften the blow, not that it ever does.

It reminds me somehow of The Godfather when one mobster tells another, "It's only business," before having him killed, as if the qualification somehow softens the blow.

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