Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive


We don’t need Professor Harold Hill to tell us there are troubles right here in River City.  Indeed, the existence of a pool hall seems to be the least of them.

One of the oldest and most recognizable rhetorical forms is the jeremiad, which is a warning or a call to action for others to change their ways. Jeremiads are a popular form of public rhetoric, seen and heard in news columns, religious tracts, documentaries and political speeches. And then there is your insufferable Aunt Tilly. The best we can do is suffer through her endless admonitions. Jeremiads typically describe a whole cluster of problematic habits or behaviors, which I suppose can be seen as a sign our abilities to imagine the world as it might be.

In short notice any of us can emit a jeremiad.  For some reason it can feel good to tell others they are on their way to one of the circles of hell.  The form is named after the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah who condemned idolatry, corrupt priests, and those who would sell themselves as “false prophets.” Sin travels hand-in-hand with the cautionary warnings of proselytizers.  And so it is with their secular counterparts who thrive on doomsday warnings that others seem unable to heed.  My best childhood memory of church was the booming voice of J. Carlton Babbs reminding his Methodist flock how very near we were to the precipice.


If this all sounds a bit self-righteous, it surely is.  But jeremiads also provide the necessary churn to prod the rest of us to consider the consequences of our actions. We don’t need the reminders of Professor Harold Hill to tell us there are indeed troubles right here in River City.  Others are eager to pitch in to feed our natural meliorism.

The young have an aversion to jeremiads as much as the old are compelled to issue them.

Those of us with an abundance of judgments about how the social order should work are eager to tell others what they are doing wrong.  For reasons not clear to me, this rhetorical gene seems to especially thrive in men. Freely sharing opinions is a masculine trait.  We can cite the Puritans in early America.  But we could just as easily point to many of our contemporaries who take to jeremiads like fish to water.  We usually think of older evangelicals that have any number of warnings to offer to their straying flocks.  But think, too, of a broad tradition in liberal politics, well represented by Bernie Sanders or the iconoclastic writer, Chris Hedges, both of whom describe current economic, foreign policy and healthcare policies that will lead the nation to ruin.  As befits their unsettling nature, the best jeremiads give us no comfort because we know that they are probably justified.

Even this blog indulges in its share of fire and brimstone religious tracts. The constant complaint here that distraction is the communication malady of our age represents a difference in kind, but not in form.

The young have an aversion to jeremiads as much as the old are compelled to issue them. Cautions on behavioral and lifestyle choices receive a chilly reception from teenage audiences who have often been inoculated against hearing yet more advice.  Some interesting recent research suggests that even peer-to-peer appeals for such basic forms of self preservation such as lowering the volume levels of headphones typically fall on those ostensibly damaged ears.  Newer members of the human race are not all that interested in hearing how older generations became sadder but wiser. It is probably some mysterious generational thing.  But it is also an understandable impulse that the young would like to make their own mistakes.


Tics are sometimes functional. And others? Just annoying.

Humans come in many forms, with custom wrapping that could only be theirs.  The more we get to know a person the more we can identify the signature features of how they address others.  Most of these verbal or visual habits may hardly raise an eyebrow.  But other habits may come to be seen as bumps on the road to fluency: verbal peculiarities that are noticed and, perhaps, an unintended source of amusement.

Communication “tics” are not alway manifest in utterances.  But many are, taking the form of over-used locutions, repeated words or phrases, or unusual ways of verbally ‘punctuating’ words.  For example, many of us fall prey to the silence-filling “auh” when a full stop might be better.  Others of us lean on “you know” or “um” as silence-fillers.  They frequently serve to keep a verbalization sequence alive, as if it was territory to be held against potential invaders.  “Auh” is like a gate that never opens to let another pass.  And “you know” can get especially annoying when it seems to have fully replaced the written equivalent of a simple period.

Alternatively, we may keep a collection of voices available for babies, pets or friends,  unaware that its endless use can be grating. A high-pitched ‘baby’ voice directed to an old dog can may endearing the first few times, but can become a stale as a Frankie Valli hit that is heard a bit too often.

Those of us with allergies or sinus issues know we must  sometimes drive others crazy with coughs, throat-clearing, nose-blowing or worse. Few are as bad or as funny as the Odd Couple’s Felix. The infamous diner scene from Neil Simon’s film isn’t the first time that Jack Lemmon’s Felix was to test Oscar’s patience.

Clearing Sinuses – The Odd Couple (6/8) Movie CLIP (1968) HD

The Odd Couple movie clips: BUY THE MOVIE: Don’t miss the HOTTEST NEW TRAILERS: CLIP DESCRIPTION: Felix (Jack Lemmon) uses a special technique to clean out his sinuses in a crowded restaurant while Oscar (Walter Matthau) looks on. FILM DESCRIPTION: Compulsive neatnik Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) is thrown out of his house by his divorce-bound wife.

Some  tics are functional.  I had a professor who, when he grew excited about making a point, would begin to trip over his words.  He would pause and then repeat their first syllables, and it was positively riveting: a kind of oral punctuation that worked.

More annoying can be the habits of raising one’s voice at the end of a statement or, conversely, lowering vocal volume to inaudibility. Both patterns can persist regardless of what is being said.  A routine rise in pitch at the end of a thought can leave it sounding like a would-be question, sometimes signaling a tentativeness and turning ideas into “maybe” assertions. The different problem of dropping one’s vocal volume at the end of a thought leaves us unsure of what we heard.  The thought seems to vanish into a fog of receding sound. Film directors sometime miss the pattern when they are working with actors who have never worked in live theater, where there learn to ‘project’ to the back of the house.  The result can leave viewers wondering what was said in the last few words of a line. To be sure, the British sometimes prefer self-effacing mumbles, leaving Americans to check with each other about what the Earl of Whatever was suggesting in the last scene.  That is still preferred to what Brits sometimes hear as rude shouts from their American cousins.

Tics are mostly harmless. Though when they begin to seem like a pattern that is its own sideshow, they can swamp the ideas or feelings that are supposed at the center of an exchange.