the way you say it

People get across each other. 

They feel with instant animal sense that this man or this woman is against me, will mishear whatever I say.  And there are people you just don’t like.  They say good morning and your hackles go up like an angry animal.   Race, class and age are part of this – any one of which will make matters more difficult – but the bottom line is animal mistrust. 

One of the most important components of rage is fear. 

And fear is hard to face, whether it is fear of losing your job, your temper, your hold in a risky situation. Fear has no colour.   Perfect love may cast out fear (so the Bible says)  but I lack perfect.  I am not perfect anything. 

After months of formulaic miscommunication, I want to scream at the energy company.   I loathe the  exchanges which are guaranteed to go nowhere.  I look at the rubbish on the website and know that “chat” is a newly offensive four letter word.   And I have news for those among us who take a position like  my own in which they prefer to write.  Write by all means – at least that way you have a record – but do not expect to be read.   That makes me stone in the chest scared

and engenders rage.  Not helpful. 

The language of race is more difficult because it is more visible.  That question you’re not supposed to ask “ where are you from ?”   is immensely more acceptable prefaced by “Please tell me –  where etc.”  I use it often.  It engenders conversation.  I am extremely aware of offence, sensitivity, interpretation –  but I know we can do it.  I have spent my whole life, private and public, seen and unseen, devoted to communication. 

There is a way.  Find it.  The fall short is ugly.  It leads nowhere good.

There are people for whom I am the wrong colour, not many thank heaven, but you have negotiate them.  What was called in immediately post apartheid South Africa “a white liberal grin” is still not what some want to see.  You could argue, and I do,  that crossing that divide is not always possible.  It requires mutual intent and depending on that is an act of faith if ever I heard one.  But it can be done.

A couple of weeks ago, at the bus stand I saw a woman of colour some years my junior with a wheeled support cum cart, looking a bit bewildered.  I said “Where do you want to go ?”  You will have to trust all those years of talking to people for my received pronunciation to sound agreeable. She told me,  I suggested and we got the same bus where she sat  in front of me, beside a lower middle class professional man in his fifties, saying to him with a real smile, nothing to do with a flirt or a simper,  “I am sorry, it’s a big body.”  So she has communication skills.  He grinned and I put both my hands forward on his shoulders and said between the two of them “Now, you be careful – next thing is, she’ll make a pass at you !”  And we all laughed. 

he isn’t like any of us but it’s a wonderful laugh

She kissed her hand to me when she got off the bus.

This is how we get on.   It fascinates me in the hospital waiting room that I am so far the only person who acknowledges when her name is called out – “Yes ma’am !” , or “That’s me”.  I suppose you could read it as egotism  but I thought of it as acknowledgement.

In a store yesterday  a girl with skin as fine as brown eggshell asked if she could help me.  I said “Yes.  Tell me which bank to rob .”  She asked what I meant, we started to talk about what was on sale, what it cost  and the state of the world, she asked where I was from and got very excited because her background was a slightly more exotic version of mine.  “ I don’t tell people these things” she said.  “Why am I telling you ?”  “Because people tell me things” I offered and she flung her arms round me –  “Oh I am so glad you came in”.   There are words and there is tone – it’s the way you say it.     

2 responses to “the way you say it

  1. Nodding away here in Cambridge! You are so right, Anna. At a College dinner recently a senior (in career terms) woman questioned me about my previous position in such a patronising manner that my hackles were instantly up around my ears. So irritating and I found myself being uncharacteristically taciturn in response. Manner is everything in this kind of exchange.

  2. My wife and I were agreeing on the ‘how you say it’ bit just a couple of days ago, after the palace hoo ha. On the ‘mutual intent’ bit, sometimes people don’t notice the ‘how you say it bit’ because they are searching for an opportunity to take offence – a great shame!

    As for customer services departments, I find that occasionally you get one that is pleasant, friendly and helpful. It’s a shame that this comes as a surprise.

    Another good blog entry Anna. Thank you.

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