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Speak fatter!

Language has many functions apart from the expression of thoughts and communication—too many and too well known to list here! But important among these is our use of language to express gratitude, apologies, or to react to something more fully. Some of us clip-trim our replies to bare bones. Look at these exchanges.‘I hope your holiday goes well! Have fun!’

‘Thanks.’

‘I’m so sorry you had to cancel the programme. You must be disappointed!’

‘Yes.’

‘We’re planning to go to Kolkata. It would be lovely if you could join us!’

‘Okay.’

In all these exchanges, something good has been done, warmth has been expressed, or an unfortunate happening has been shared. There is probably an expectation that the mood will be echoed. Instead, the replies are short to the point of discourteousness. A single ‘Thanks’ conveys casualness, not valuing someone’s good wishes enough, and in the second exchange, the person’s concern—just a ‘Yes’. In the third reply, the ‘Okay’ is probably meant to express a good willingness. What we hear instead is a don’t-care-either-way. We don’t know if the person is happy to go. In the fourth reply, ‘Never’ is probably true but sounds like a rebuff. And just saying ‘Oh’ to a friend who is miserable about missing an important exam does nothing to make her feel better!

Our texting practices, brief by nature, are in part responsible for clipped replies. What is worse is that we don’t pause to think about this.But it shouldn’t be. Short everyday responses almost always need ‘fat-ness’ a blah-blah around them, surround words that infuse an acknowledgement of good wishes or good thoughts.

‘Thanks, so good of you.’

‘Yes, I’m disappointed, but these things happen!’

‘Okay, I’d love to come!’

‘Never—but I know you’ve always wanted to!’

‘I’m so sorry! These things happen, Sita; I am sure you can sit the exam again.’

Language also has a role to play in’softening’ messages that convey not-pleasant news or alerts. We may want to say something in a way that is less hurtful, more palatable, and more polite. Notice how the second (alternative) answer in each exchange below softens the blow. 

‘Did I fail?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m afraid you did, but…’

In (1), the message is bald. In (2) phrases like ‘I’m afraid you did’ and leaving a sentence incomplete (‘but…’) can make the news easier to take. Incompleteness of this kind in spoken communication is a very special device; it offers hope and a sense of sympathy, leaving things open.

‘I’m sure I sang it well this time?’

‘No.’

‘Not really, Prem, but let’s work on it.’

‘No’ in (1) is harsh. In (2) adverbs like ‘really’ and ‘truly’ blunt the sting a little, as do the words added. In the same way, explaining and adding reasons helps make a reply less hard:‘I’m stuck! I wish he could help me complete this task.’

‘He can’t.’

‘He would have, but he can’t. He’s busy.’

Delaying saying something works in the same way as softening. We have sounds in speech at our service to help us delay communicating disagreement or an unpleasant outcome—sounds like ‘mmm…’ and ‘er…’. Other delayers like ‘well,’ ‘actually,’ are more important than we realise. So are doubt markers like ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’. They carry no real meaning in the exchanges below but show empathy and a hesitation to be harsh. Notice that in some utterances, turning a statement into a question fleshes it out further.

‘…Mmm, well, it wasn’t as good as I thought.’

‘It was…er…a kind of let-down, wasn’t it?’

‘Well… let’s see…’

‘It was…maybe…a little soon?’

‘You could…perhaps…be more flexible?’

Extending, softening, circling, explaining, and delaying are important devices. When necessary, speak fat, not thin!

(Published 29 October 2023, 22:34 IST)

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