Sunday, October 7, 2012

Content Over Form

Question from the audience: So what do you think of someone who says, "With whom did you go to the meeting?" 
Response from the communications instructor: "I think he's asked the question correctly. I also think he's an asshole." 

I've been avoiding writing. Mostly because I haven't been reading. How can I write about anything at all when I haven't scoured the newspapers every day and haven't pored over Clinton's Time essay? I generally try to refrain from opining on anything without being fully informed. But, as sometimes fortuitously happens, a few distinct, yet strikingly comparable, events have occurred over the past several weeks that have made me question that seemingly sensible and obvious concept I've posited [isn't it odd that we can derive meaning from a series of random events purely because they've happened in tandem?]

After Obama's flat-footed and dull performance at the presidential debate, a helpful grammar and writing refresher and a subpar attempt to explain what I do to a few college students,  I'm wondering…does what we say matter, or only how we say it?

Obama got it right - he said everything he should have about the economy and discussed real, tangible proposals for the future. Romney made a few less-than-honest comments and didn't even take a crack at how he would achieve all of the wonderful pie-in-the-sky improvements that will descend on America like angels as soon as he takes office. Yet we're disappointed by the president's performance and we're hailing Romney, the victor of the debate.

I'm completely overgeneralizing here, but the way I see it, the person who knows what he's talking about is also the person who works hard, has strong values and morals and is thoughtful and reliable. The person who can walk into a room and talk about anything in a confident, charismatic way, but who doesn't actually say anything meaningful is a mystery to me. I don't know what he really thinks, nor do I understand how he's so confident without any substance behind his demeanor, and I'm wary because he can win people over and build relationships without necessary ingredients like credibility, honesty and trust.

But are we even really listening? Time and again I find myself thinking about something someone said and then realizing it's contradictory or half-baked. And I'm guilty, too, when I can't find a way around talking about something I'm really not familiar with. But I'd much rather admit that I just don't know the answer than try to BS whomever I'm speaking with.  I've yet to see anyone lose any political capital, personal relationships, etc. because they've said what others wanted to hear (for lack of an idea or new perspective or belief) or have made vague generalizations about the topic at hand (this usually involves paraphrasing what has already been said). Do we let is slide because we're too busy to really listen to others? Or because it's exhausting to dissect and analyze what is said, versus what someone kind of meant, versus how we think someone will act despite what he says?  Do we not trust our own intelligence enough and assume we don't fully understand? Do we just not care enough about the truth and the implications of people's words?

The fact is, what people say matters. Maybe I feel strongly about it because I love language or maybe it's because if "form" is paramount then I'm kind of screwed (blushing and tripping over my words won't score me any points, right?). It's respectful to listen to others. And if we do start paying attention, then we can hold others accountable for what they say, which means we'll have more insight into people's characters, can develop more effective relationships and maybe even can begin to understand more about what we, ourselves, think and feel. Or maybe I'm just crazy. But I think I'll continue listening anyway.

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