Thursday, January 21, 2010

What the Hell Did She Just Say To Me?

I just about gave somebody down the road the other day. A woman, who shall remain nameless, all but gave me the stink eye over something I said to one of her co-workers. Before I opened my mouth and got myself in trouble, I walked away. Begrudgingly.

You may or may not remember/know this, but my second job is with an international package delivery company. You step inside the guard shack and go through metal detectors before you get through the gate to make sure you aren't bringing in anything crazy like a knife or gun or whatever. And then you're frisked and/or wanded when you leave after your shift to make sure you aren't stealing cell phones or whatever you can fit on your person as you leave the guard shack. I get it. I understand the reasoning behind the security, and I've even gotten used to being patted down like a criminal. How sad is that, right? I digress.

Over the years, I've built a rapport with the security staff. With one of them in particular, we have a way of greeting each other that is almost second nature. We don't even think about it. He's a former New York police officer, probably in his forties, with a wide-shouldered bravado, deep Latin-flavored skin tone, and he's cool as a fan. Our exchange usually goes something like this:

Me: Hey, ya'll.
Guard: Sup, man? You good?
Me: Chillin'. You know me.
Guard: I feel ya.
Me: Peace.

Whipping her head around and speaking before she thought, she asked her partner, "Where in the hell did he learn to talk like that?" Short, with burning red hair and a thin frame, she isn't the first image you'd have of a security guard. But that is neither here nor there.

I was just about to push the door open to the other side of the guard shack when I got the look. She wasn't new, and I'm pretty sure she'd heard us say hey to each other many times before. Thanks to my buddy previously questioning me about bank business, she knows what I do during the day, and that I spend the evening amongst my blue collar acquaintances. Her inability to disconnect the mental image she has of me as a banker (though that's not what I do), combined with the phrasing and word choice of the exchange she just witnessed must have literally blown her mind. It was almost as if she didn't approve of what I'd said or the way I'd said it; like I'd shattered some pre-conceived notion of how she thought I was supposed to act and speak.

It's somewhat comical now, but in the nanosecond between her face contorting and my deciding to ignore her tone, she was spared a verbal evisceration. Bless her heart. And you know what? I'm still trying to figure out why she so quickly and completely got under my skin. I wonder if I was just having a bad day. Or maybe not.

Helen of Troy's face launched a thousand ships and ignited the Trojan Wars. And a picture is said to be worth a thousand words. But is there really anything more powerful, more compelling and inflammatory, any tool or weaponry which is greater or more widely called upon in the human arsenal than language? The misinterpretation of a single word can cause a conversation or mood to turn on a dime.

As much as some people try to deny this for the purposes of making their own argument, any human who ventures outside the house for any appreciable amount of time each day does not exist, nor do they communicate on a singular plane. That just isn't possible. From the angst-ridden teenager at your local McDonald's drive-thru, to your uppity manager at the phone company to whom you speak only when spoken to, all the way to your respective family members, the language you use with all of those groups is different. Think about it. You're not going to address your manager in the same manner you speak to your mother or your little brother. Similarly, the language you use (either spoken or unspoken) with the drive-thru anger ball isn't the same as you would use to communicate with your next door neighbor.

And why should it be?

The delivery of language - I firmly believe - differs based on the context of the situation. I remember telling my mother once that I tend to speak to my guys at my second job differently than I do to my co-workers at the bank. My wife didn't agree with my doing so, and if memory serves, intimated that I should use proper speech as a way of lighting the path, as it were. I completely understand where she's coming from and the point she was making, but I don't do that for two reasons: 1) I don't consider it to be my responsibility; and 2) I feel an indefinable sense of connection and kinship with them in being able to let down my guard, relaxing my language in our succinct and effortless conversations. To read that, you might think I'm putting them down, or in some fashion telling you I think them to be less educated than I. That's far from the case and hopefully not a parallel you drew before I brought it up. (However, what a great bullet point in the argument that language can so easily polarize based on the interpretation of a sentence!) It's like talking to my fraternity brothers - easy and so completely unpretentious. Again, I digress.

Inherent in the language presented to others are elements of passion and power. You are infusing your speech with equal parts syncopation, accent, dialect, volume & tone, and inflection based on myriad factors, not the least of which is the person to whom you're speaking. Language is fun. Language helps you discern intention and size up your competition. Language is a lightening rod by which you can attract and enlighten your audience, or showcase your glaring ignorance. What joy would there be in listening to Common were it not for his artful and thought-provoking expressions? Diana Krall and Tony Bennett both want us to fly them to the moon, and even though the lyrics are the same, their deliveries are dissimilar enough to make it seem as though the songs are completely unrelated. Jill Scott seduces us, Rissi Palmer enchants us, Jay-Z moves us, and Kenny Loggins enlivens us. Bill Clinton, Maya Angelou, and Barack Obama have used language to defend themselves, inspire us, and exclaim 'Yes We Can'. All of them and many more, do so with their powerful, yet individual, commands of language.

Whether it comes from the silver-tongued devil of a salesman trying to talk you into a copier you just don't need, the barker at a carnival tempting you to let him guess your weight in public, or the comfort of a parent consoling their child after the death of their pet, language is an arrow (sometimes poison-tipped), feather-guided and irretrievable once pulled from your brain's quiver and launched from your mouth toward your target.

As I wrote (and re-read) this entry and thought about everything I was trying to convey, I realized that there is also a reasonable expectation of comprehension tied to the language we use, and that that expectation is assumed by every- and anyone within earshot. Sometimes you get it, and sometimes you don't.

I'm glad I took a deep breath and left the guard shack with my thoughts aflame, instead of making a fool out of myself (and probably embarrassing the young lady) by asking her to explain what she meant. I'm glad I took a couple of days and wrote out my feelings. It helped me put everything that happened that day - and situations I'm sure I'll face down the road - into unique perspective. I understand why the security guard was confused. I understand her not being able to reconcile in her brain my need and desire to be a verbal chameleon. I understand my knee-jerk reaction and asking myself, "What the hell did she just say to me?"

I understand.

I wonder if she does.

Do you?