Face it. Most of us like to think of ourselves as honest, even when we’re not. The idea of being a “straight-shooter” and “straight talker” is what upstanding citizens and human beings do. But the truth is, we all lie sometimes. Or, to put it more equivocally, we equivocate. Or obfuscate. Maybe to stay out of trouble, or to avoid an argument which might harm a relationship, or we aren’t sure what the right thing to say is, or we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Whatever the reason, we straddle the fence by saying one thing while meaning (and conveying) another.
Those of us who have lived long enough have probably been on both sides of the fence. We have used these subterfuges, so of course we recognize them when other people use them on us.
For example, when M would rather not do something, he usually says, “I’ll do it tomorrow,” or “When I get to it.” If he says, “In a minute,” it means tomorrow. “Later,” means I have a fighting chance. And “When I get to it,” means “never gonna happen.”
One of my favorites: I had a very opinionated neighbor who thought she had better taste than everyone else’s on our street. She would give your new sofa, or dress for an upcoming wedding, or the cookies you just baked the once-over, then put her hand on her chin and tap it a few times like she was thinking hard, and say, on a big exhaled breath, “You like it?????” It was crystal clear to anyone who faced that carefully placed hand-on-chin, and those disapproving eyes that what she was really saying was: much as you might like the sofa (dress, cookies) she didn’t no, not one bit, in fact they were revolting and you might actually be an idiot for buying/baking them.
Have you ever run into someone you haven’t seen in a while who says, with kindly concern, “Are you okay?” I thought about this the other day, when a friend greeted me with, “Are you tired?” The words may be all about concern for your wellbeing, but can there be any doubt that you look like holy hell at that moment? My favorite in this category was the delicious/malicious putdown when an acquaintance asked me if I were okay because she thought I might be cyanotic. Turned out she didn’t care for my bluish-purple lipstick.
It works the other way too: someone who acts overly surprised at how grrrrreat you look when you are just your ordinary self which makes you wonder how bad you looked the last time you met. “You look fabulous!” makes me want to argue the person out of thinking I look any different from the way I usually look. (Or else I drive myself crazy thinking how I can live up to this fabulousness the next time we meet.)
Lots of times we obfuscate to save someone’s feelings. Like, have you ever sat in the audience of a performance by someone you know, wondering what you are going to say when you go backstage? I’ve perfected the one word that can stand in for anything from “That was awful, I’m so sorry,” to “That was marvelous.” Just say, “Oh, wow. Wow, darling, wow.” And smile. Or, when someone you love comes home with a terrible haircut, the only thing to say is, “I love it!” And smile.
Here are some common things people say when they really mean other things:
Simple, good for any occasion: “Okay” which, with a rhythmic or tonal adjustment means “not okay.” (Or, if you are a minimalist, “Mmmhmm,” which stands for “That’s what you say.”)
When making plans: “Do you really want to go?” means “Let’s stay home.”
A discussion closer: “If you say so,” means “Not true, but I’m not about to argue.”
“What do you think of so and so?” means “I didn’t like him and I’m looking for company.”
“Let me sleep on it, ” in the workplace means “no.”
At home: “Let’s sleep on it” means “give me enough time to figure out a good reason to say no.”
During a long phone call: “Let me let you go,” means “I’m done. I have to end this NOW.”
Let me let you go.