Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories  March 2016 | issue 483

The Way We Do Not Say What We Mean When We Say What We Say

by Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle lives in Portland, Oregon, and is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. He has written fourteen books, among them the novel Chicago and the collection The Thorny Grace of It: And Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics.

Of late I have been ever more absorbed by the way we do not say what we mean when we say what we say. Even yes and no quite often do not mean affirmation or negation, but rather suggest routes of negotiation, or carry loaded messages having to do with past events and discussions, or are comments on matters of a wholly different import than the one at hand; so that, for example, a quiet no means one thing and a loud one another, and a muttered yes one thing and a whispered one another; and this is not even to mention body language, and facial expression, and eyebrow elevation, and percentage of pique, and amount of amusement, or the way that some men — and it seems to be mostly men who do this — pretend to be hard of hearing when they hear something they do not want to hear.

We say yes when we mean I would rather not. We say no when we mean I would say yes except for all the times yes has proven to be a terrible idea. We say no thank you when every fiber in our bodies is moaning oh yes please. We say you cannot when what we mean is actually you can but you sure by God ought not to. We say no by not saying anything whatsoever.

I am fascinated by how we may speak the same language but use different tones and shades and volumes and timbres and pronunciations and emphases in order to bend the language in as many ways as there are speakers of it.

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