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Straight Talk

We've been so blessed to have power and heat this week. Here's a lighthearted look at what a week of "forced togetherness" has made me realize about how we communicate.

  After a busy weekend of our kids’ soccer and softball and field hockey games and practices, Monday mornings in my house can be a grim reminder of all of the things left undone.  I race around the kitchen making breakfast and lunches while my husband rifles through my youngest’s backpack, firing comments and questions at me in rapid succession:

     “Did we ever fill out that form for Elizabeth’s camp stuff?”

     “We really need to get that basement cleaned up.”

     “Are we going to make something for the Harvest Fest?”

     On a good day, I smile inwardly and simply answer the question or murmur agreement.  On a bad day, or after a long week of forced togetherness like the one we just experienced compliments of “Sandy,” these types of questions illicit answers mildly tinged with irritation: 

     “Ooooh!  Oui Oui!  I love it when you speak French to me!”  I coo sarcastically.

     Because, of course, what he really means is “Moi,” and sometimes, I guess I just wish he’d say so.  At least I think I do.  The reality is that there’s a solid chance that on some days that wouldn’t go over well either.  On the other hand, speaking French to me occasionally is a giant step up from another kind of question.  The one that begins, “How would you like to….” For that one, the cartoon rendition would show the words screeching down a giant lightening bolt headed straight to the top of my aluminum spine.  The thought bubble would read: No I wouldn’t like to, thank you very much. How would you like to just ask for what you want instead of acting like you’re doing ME a favor? 

     Sometimes, he goes the flattery route.  School and camp forms will pile up on my desk for all of the kids and he’ll shrug in an aw shucks kind of way and say, “You’re so much better at this stuff than I am. I’ll help you if you need me to.”  Allow me to do the translation: I hate filling these papers out and I never want to see them again. Please take care of this and never mention it again.  

     Ugh.  As my sister and I like to say, “If only everyone were a lot more like us.” Humph, and tsk.  

     Okay, okay, so I probably have a few annoying habits of my own when it comes to communicating clearly.  What I think of as “gentle prodding” for example, some people might perceive as manipulative.  Passive-aggressive even.  I’m sure my husband is not at all fooled by my fondness for questions like, “Do you want me to take out the recycling honey?”  I’ve also caught myself beating around the bush with that that oddly indirect-direct question, “Can you not put the dirty glasses in the sink?”

     I sometimes find the “I” statement favored by relationship experts to be a tough one to swallow. I know I should say things like, “I feel devalued when you bring your best friend into the delivery room while I labor to have our child.”  And yet, I’ve heard my own pre-epidural voice squeeze through clenched teeth to utter things closer to, “Dude, he takes one more step into this room and you won’t live to see your newborn.”

      A long time ago, I decided that when I reprimanded my children, I wanted to do so in a loving way.  My own mother had sounded and looked furious when I broke the rules, and the effect that had on me was that I felt, at that moment anyway, that she really loathed me.  The very idea that she raised seven children without ever having read a single book about child rearing is a concept that my generation finds reprehensible (and she finds hilarious). I didn’t want my kids to ever feel that way.  I read the books.  I embraced the mantra, I don’t like what you did, but I still like you.  Now a senior in high school, my daughter doesn’t hesitate to tell me that she has always found it enormously creepy that I smile when I’m describing both her crime and her punishment.   Truth be told, I see her point.  

     A friend of mine told me that both she and her husband prefer to deliver many of their most difficult messages through conversations with someone else while in earshot of the other.  It might go like this: He comes home one night and is snappish with her.  Then, over dinner, he’ll announce to the kids that he’s cranky because he’s, “Really tired because I didn’t get home from work until late last night and had to be back in the office early today.”  She will then turn to the family dog and loudly apologize for forgetting to refill his water bowl saying, “I just haven’t had a minute to think all day” and then patiently ticks off the number of chores and responsibilities she has managed to jam into her day.  I’m sure marriage counselors have a name for this style of indirect banter.  I’m equally sure it falls into the category of “frowned upon,” and yet the message is abundantly clear.

     As a teacher, my students who return after a day’s absence often ask me, “Did we do anything yesterday?”  I try not to feel insulted. I’m fluent in this language and know that what they really mean is, “What did I miss?”  Unfortunately, my standard reply, “No, we waited for you,” is frequently misinterpreted. Pronoun usage is at its most interesting when report cards come out.  Inevitably I will hear one child say, “She gave me a C,” and another say, “I got an A.”

   I’m considering embarking upon an experiment. I’m going to be more direct.  To consciously choose my words in a way that is a clear expression of what I’m trying to say.  I’m sure it’ll save a lot of time, which will free everyone up for better interactions overall.  No more reading between the lines, no need to crack the code. What you hear is what you get. Oh yes, I think this is going to be good.  But on second thought, maybe I should ease into this.  Practice on the dogs first. 

     Yeah, I’ll start tomorrow.

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