Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

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.

Living in the National Piñata

This is an area where too many of the deer and antelope play, where wild turkeys travel in sullen gangs, and official cautions about bears are not just an academic exercise.

We were at a party a few weeks ago when I happened to pick up a fragment of the conversation just in time to hear a visitor from North Carolina offer the opinion that “the only good thing about New Jersey is Bruce Springsteen.” She was sorry she couldn’t get a ticket to see his show in New York. The nearby host demurred and said something to the effect that “we love him, but there’s more to the state than Bruce.”  I wish I’d been fast enough to have thrown in a little Jersey attitude as well, perhaps the coda: “and we’re prepared to break the legs of anyone who disagrees.”

The comment was a red flag. It seems rude for a party guest to be critical of the host’s state. That’s the job of people who live in it, and we do it well.  It was even more ironic that this was said in a beautiful New Jersey home on it’s “west coast,” near the Delaware River. The house sits in the kinds of woodlands that cover over 40 percent of the Garden State. It’s next to conservation district filled with trees and pastures, and across from a trout stream. Locals swear that Vermont tourism officials once came to this spot to take pictures of “their” countryside. It’s also an area where too many of the deer and antelope play, where wild turkeys travel in sullen gangs, and official cautions about bears are not just an academic exercise. Lovely villages hug the shores of the East’s most impressive “wild and scenic river,” the Middle and Upper portions of the Delaware. Both sides of its wooded banks as scattered with historic inns, including one in Stockton memorialized in the Rogers and Hart standard, “There’s a Small Hotel.”

I won’t run down the list of backward ideas that seem to catch the fancy of many in the Tar Heel State. I will just say that from a Garden State perspective, some of our friends to the south still seem to still be fighting old culture wars, to the detriment of women, gay Americans and Muslims.

Residents here tend to be more forward-looking. People in New Jersey actually vote to increase their taxes to preserve farms and open space.  The corollary is the right to complain about the higher cost of living.  And other supposed bargain states might take note: New Jersey is near the top in the performance of its tax-funded public schools, average household income, residents with advanced degrees, sane gun laws, and standards for the treatment of animals.

As befits a state that still believes in communities and their governments, the geographically compact state has over 500 of municipal bodies . All these big and little school districts, towns and boroughs are expensive to support. But they suggest that many residents are engaged. Live in a small town, and you will be asked to serve a stint on the Planning Board or Shade Tree Commission. Even the state’s bigger cities on it’s east coast seem to be on a roll of newfound civic activism.

I’ve lived in California, Colorado, Great Britain and Pennsylvania, and liked them all.  But New Jersey seems to be the most open to ethnic and religious differences. In a recent flight from Florida to Trenton I was proud of the overcrowded plane with the diversity of a United Nations gathering.

So a word of warning: Please don’t use the Garden State as the national piñata. There is so much more to New Jersey than the Turnpike and Newark/Liberty Airport. And to our friends from the south, be sure there are human assets to claim for your state beyond notable landmarks like the grand Biltmore Estate, the nation’s largest private home. Anyway it’s just possible that one day Bruce may buy the place and move it to Rumson.