Say What? (On Curiosity & Connection)


I’m one of those people who tends to apologize.

A few years back, I crashed my car–a 1967 Ford Falcon in near-mint condition–through no fault of my own. Thrilled to be in one piece and hopeful the other driver was, too, I leapt out and exclaimed, “I’m soooo sorry!”

I said this, despite a lifetime of warnings I’d received about the danger of taking responsibility at the scene of a car accident. Why? …because in my vocabulary, “sorry” is often not an apology at all. It’s a show of empathy. In this case, I was worried about the other driver.

In its complex coding, “I’m sorry” is akin “bless your heart”. When I say it, I’m often sending goodwill and sometimes even pity–not subservience. You either get this, or you don’t.

This is a problem of interpretation–a matter I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and not just for this reason. Our globalized society melds languages, dialects, slangs, and jargons. Amid that mishmash, we seem more likely to misunderstand and offend one another. What to do?

I believe we must show more curiosity toward one another.

imgresThis topic was hot on my brain when I woke up to the (nerd-tastic) news that December 13th is the anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s death. For those in need of a refresher, Johnson wrote the most influential dictionary of our time. His mission was to help us better understand one another–a pretty noble calling, if you ask me.

For nearly two decades, the focus of my work has been communication. Usually that work is written, but it’s also been spoken. I think about things like: What makes communication succeed, and what makes it fail? When should we conform to societal expectations, and when should we assert our own personal expression?  Who’s in charge of language, anyway?

I’m a writer–not a linguist. This feels like a lot to consider.

Johnson is often credited with the phrase, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Turns out, he didn’t come up with that phrase, but it remains relevant. Many people–like me, with my apologies–mean well when they open their mouths. When it comes to communication, do intentions matter?

Johnson, despite his warning, seemed to think so. For a guy who took nine years to hand-write a dictionary (bound in human skin, no less) he seemed pretty laid-back about language. He is often quoted by language prescriptivists, who favor an authoritative model of language. Yet Johnson falls equally in line with descriptivists, who prefer to study language rather than control it.


In Ecuador, prescriptivist word nerds arm themselves with spray paint and correct the grammar of graffiti artists.

Of  linguistic gatekeepers (like himself) Johnson wrote:

Academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride.

He’s basically saying that the rule-makers can suck it.

For a couple of years, I worked intensively as a proofreader. Yet I could not (and cannot) bring myself to correct the everyday grammar of my peers. It strikes me as deeply presumptuous and downright condescending. All around us, language is evolving, ebbing and flowing. Grammar and style are built on those tides. Is it helpful to have common rules of speech and writing? Of course! Yet (outside of my work) who am I to correct another person’s communication?

I would rather try and read a person’s intentions. Intentions do matter.

Rewind to that car accident: After I apologized to the other driver, he responded with a verbal assault so maniacal that the cop on the scene reprimanded him.  He didn’t care one whit about my apology–he just wanted to blame me for the wreck.  The upswing? One witness took pity and fed me wine and ice cream while the tow truck came.

I was not angry.  I felt sorry (!) for the man. He was clearly traumatized.

Our language standards are often there to protect us, and we are right to hold one another accountable to them. Still, I wonder: how flexible can we be with one another? When someone says something confusing or offensive, can we get curious enough to interpret? Can we ask: Why is that person saying those things? What do they really mean? Can I tolerate their clumsy or unfamiliar words?

What matters is that we’re connecting–not correcting. We can only do that if we are curious about other people. Says our man Johnson:

Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.

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