All posts by Gary C. Woodward

Sticking the Landing

Because any modern language is functionally an open-ended system–there are nearly infinite ways to mix words to convey meaning–it’s remarkable that we can (mostly) express what we mean.

We’ve all seen videos of planes landing on a windy runway:  Seemingly down. . . then not quite down. . . veering to the right and then the left. . . and finally down. The phrase “sticking the landing” is common to both pilots and gymnasts.  Both want to land in the right spot. Verbalizing thoughts on the fly is a cognitive version of the kind of precarious act.  Successfully explaining ourselves in the space of mere seconds is a marvel of mind-body coordination.  Every word reflects a choice.  Do we go for a literal description, or one that is metaphoric?  Should our words be a first person report, an act of truth telling? How much detail is enough?  And will a colorful word quickly plucked out of the air give the wrong impression?

Especially in front of others we are conscious that the laydown of language that is still to come needs a attention. We pre-verbalize. And most of us are remarkably good at what then follows most of the time.

To sense this fluency-on-the-fly watch a four or five year old explain themselves.  We can almost see their little brains putting it all together.  Eyes get wide and their focus becomes intense as they search for the right combinations of words, grammar and syntax.  It’s always a treat to see grandkids find pathways for their ideas.

Kids acquire this capacity at the speed of a SpaceX rocket. Language is a culture’s gift to it’s young.  But fluency itself is a life-long quest, mixing memory and experience with synergies that grow with larger vocabularies and refined understandings of how to use them.

Some of this prowess  begins to ebb in old age.  And some among us never fully master the task of linking impulses to coherent expressions. Consider, for example, the rhetoric of a few presidents.  George W. Bush was known for coming close to what he wanted to express, sometimes settling on phrasing or dependent clauses that trailed some loose ends.  As he knew, the results could be funny.  Here’s a few Bushisms from their official custodian, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg:

1. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."—Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004

2. "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."—Greater Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 27, 2000

3. "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"—Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 20004. 

4."Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."—Poplar Bluff, Mo., Sept. 6, 2004

“Sticking the landing” can be hard for all of us.  Using the wrong acronym, I once explained to students that “unexploded IUD’s” were a particular problem in places like Afghanistan. They humored me by not bursting out in laughter.

What is interesting about presidents is that they leave a clearer record of their rhetorical misdeeds.  Listen to a collection of Trump teleprompter gaffes that he tries to correct by doing what amounts to some freelance riffing after the wrong word has been said.  He usually works sideways to get back up to the term he intended to use, like a jazz musician trying to turn a wrong note into a useful improvisation.

Donald Trumps teleprompter trick or is it a tic MSNBC

Donald Trumps teleprompter trick or is it a tic

President Obama was more conscious of word choice. He often spoke like an academic, sometimes using tedious pauses while he searched his brain for the phrase or word. To achieve this kind of fluency, Obama had to speak more slowly than the human norm of about 200 words a minute.  He gave up a certain glibness for the advantages of more precision.  It’s now apparent that some of us miss the rhetoric of such a laser mind.  Others relish the circus of visceral responses that now issue from the West Wing.

Even so, let’s not let the impurity of political rhetoric taint what remains a miraculous capability spread far and wide across the species.

What Should I Say?

We usually have to talk our way through problems of behavior or attitude.  Even in the 21st Century the quaint idea of ‘etiquette’ still has something to tell us. 

I can remember the tough graduate instructor who made the surprising observation to our group that we should take the subject of etiquette seriously.  He meant the kind of advice freely given in “Ms. Manners” columns and their modern counterparts.  The idea took us by surprise and had us wondering if we would next be parsing the warblings of singer Pat Boone for some unseen profundity.  What could future rhetoricians possibly gain by looking at advice on how to slip through awkward social knots?

In hindsight, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that a verbal response intended to solve or defuse an awkward moment is interesting. We eventually got the point.

The process of negotiating differences is almost always a linguistic task. We usually have to talk our way through problems of behavior or attitude. Presumably, the person giving it can channel a load of practical solutions which might be used to manage a social challenge. Today these folks exist online as well as in more traditional media, distant heirs to the traditions firmly laid out by Emily Post or Dear Abby.

For example, the New York Times regularly runs an ethics column where the author suggests reasoned responses to gnarly workplace or family problems: for example, what a junior employee should do if they notice that a senior employee is padding the books, or what to do about a relative who persists in offering unsolicited and unwelcome political views.  When we substitute what’s “ethical” for what’s “proper,” we are perhaps closer to the vernacular of our times. It works even if we are addressing  the racier behaviors that show up on Slate’s “Dear Prudence” feature.

There’s also a second advice-giver at the Times who deserves special notice. Philip Galanes writes the Sunday “Social Q’s” column in the Styles section. Galanes seems to like reader questions that can be addressed with sensible responses that allow a graceful escape. Consider his suggestion to a writer who doesn’t know how to tell a friend  that she dislike’s her smoking.  A fear of saying something has kept the writer from offering an invitation for dinner.  His solutions usually take the form of a direct request.  Say “I love you, May, but I can’t take your secondhand smoke.  If you’re willing to to take your ciggie breaks in the great (and frigid) outdoors, we’d love to have you to dinner at our place.”  Even so, he advises that there should be no general lecture on the risks of smoking.

What are Social Q’s? Watch to Find Out

Learn more about The Social Q’s at Find out what Social Q’s actually are and how to manage them with a Q&A session with author Philip Galanes.

To a questioner who wants to confront the drunk that her young daughter encountered at a children’s party: “Say nothing. You are not the right messenger.”  And to a vegan who is tired of advice and health warnings given by friends who mean well but should butt out, he offers a simple but effective response: “I’m good with my choice, but thanks for your concern.”

We would be mistaken to assume that a “good manners” means retreating to passive language. But take another look at the last suggested comment. The “Thanks for your concern” wording from the vegan can have a subtext that might be more brutally said as “Mind your own business.”  But the use of the word “concern” softens a more confrontational effect.  It gives the intrusive advice-giver the benefit of the doubt.  Similarly, the assertion “I’m good with my choice” is perfect: “my choice” is reminder of the vegan’s obvious right to make their own decisions. In it’s own way it makes the advice-giver seem a bit small, but in rhetoric that has a non-confrontational “covering.”

Comments to defuse awkward situations always work better when they are close to our  own authentic “voice.”  Responses to the big and small moments of social interaction carry our unique rhetorical signatures.  The familiar observation we often make about someone else, “That’s what I would expect them to say,” is a reminder that our personal rhetorical style precedes us.  This complicates the utility of a “one size fits all” response in any setting.  But it doesn’t make the attempts any less interesting.

The idea of finding what might be the perfect response is a good exercise with wide applications.  For example, think of a screenplay as a worked-out set of character-specific responses and, inadvertently, as commentary on the appropriateness of responses in a given scene.  Are they the right words for the circumstances?  Polite or crude?  Do they civilize or brutalize us?  Because we easily buy into the process of parsing responses for their appropriateness, questions like these can never be out of place.