The American essayist Charles Dudley Warner famously said: “Lettuce is like conversation: it must be fresh and crisp, and so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it.” I love a crisp lettuce, but not as much as I love eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. That is, I used to. It used to be absolutely marvellous. You could catch a portion of a heated marital argument, a debate about Richard Dawkins, some chatter between mothers about infantile eczema. All fascinating material (but perhaps I should occasionally eavesdrop somewhere other than Hampstead Heath).
Recently, though, I have noticed that it’s rare to catch anything “fresh and crisp”. The conversation I overhear today is more like a wilting lettuce: floppy, no oomph, falling apart to expose “the bitter in it”. All we hear is a drone of statements announcing statements, phrases introducing and qualifying ideas, and people dodging or apologising for their own opinions. “To be honest with you”, “basically”, “to tell you the truth”, and “when it comes down to it”, “my point is this”: I am concerned that nobody really says anything anymore.
When did we all become evasive political orators? Shouldn’t we groundlings get on with actually saying things to one another and stop wasting time talking about saying things? Empty, cagey expressions have filtered down to us from our speechifying leaders, and they’re flattening our everyday dialogues. Somehow we have learnt the horrible art of putting the brakes on our opinions. What the devil are we trying to hide?
My favourite conversational padding is “to be honest with you”. When this characterless, cumbersome expression arrives in a conversation, it can only raise suspicion about everything the person has said before it. Well, that’s if you assume the person is using the expression in its literal sense of: “I’ve not been honest with you up until this point; now prepare yourself to hear what I really mean.” I wonder when it became commonplace to advertise one’s own honesty. As Strunk and White so witheringly advise in The Elements of Style: “If you feel you are possessed of the truth, or of the fact, simply state it. Don’t give it advance billing.” Their advice is for written expression, but it holds for conversational technique, too. I think it might be the “with you” section of the expression that really irks me, though. “To be honest” is bad enough. The extra “with you” is tiresome, linguistically straggly, and even quite manipulative. It suggests that the listener is being singled out to hear a confession of monumental significance.
And when people aren’t incessantly telling you they’re being honest with you, their other trick is to reduce the conversation down. “Basically”, “when it comes down to it” and “at the end of the day” are all monstrously overused expressions. They’re impatient expressions, conceited, powerful enough to squash a conversation flat. They all perform the same function of crudely reducing an exchange of ideas down to one thought or fact. People use them to claw back control, to announce that they have figured out the essence of the entire conversation and have had enough.
The user of “basically” isn’t giving the listener a chance to hear further detail; things are suddenly being boiled down. Could that listener really not handle a more complicated explanation of the point? Perhaps it’s boredom on the part of the speaker; she just can’t be bothered to muster any more words. Perhaps she is concerned that the listener is bored. Whatever the reason, “basically” murders a conversation. If you cannot be bothered to explain that particular thing further, change the subject, or bring it to a close in a more elegant, less clumsy way.
When someone says “when it comes down to it” or “at the end of the day”, it’s effectively game over. These expressions are vulgar, suggesting that one person is no longer interested in the other’s viewpoint. In that conversation, the exchange of ideas, the compromise, the give and take, has suddenly finished; one person has reached a decision and that’s that.
Why do we want to boil everything down? Are we worried about taking too long to explain ourselves? There may well be a connection between our modern, cut-to-the-chase conversational habits and the quick-fire nature of our general correspondence using emails, mobiles and social media. Perhaps when we find ourselves faced with another person, unconstrained by our mobile phone ‘minutes’ or our 140-character ‘tweet’, we feel unsure how to sustain a natural flow of dialogue, and end up filling in the gaps with nervous padding and bringing the whole thing to a premature end.
What a shame. A lively conversation, full of interesting points, tangents and dynamics, is something really special. Of course, not every conversation will be a sparkling one, but the good ones seem to me to be fewer and further between. I still do a lot of eavesdropping, and I can report that I’m mainly stumbling across wilting lettuces. How do you know when you’re having or overhearing a sparkling conversation? You just know. The conversation keeps going. Nobody’s saying they’re about to make a point or about to tell the truth; they’re just making points and telling the truth. Nobody’s trying to boil the discussion down to “basically”. If anything, they’re finding ways to stay away from conclusions and keep the conversation fresh and crisp. Just like a lovely Warner lettuce.