Archive for the ‘speechlessness’ category

Before smartphones

April 12, 2013

I’m one of those people who moans about overuse of smartphones in social settings. It’s a kind of tragedy of the commons: if you’re the one guy who’s got his smartphone out in a social situation, it’s great for you. Dip in and out of conversation with the people who are present, dip in and out of conversation with people who aren’t present. Lovely. But for every smartphone that gets pulled out, the social situation gets that bit less social. And if you’re the one person without a smartphone, it’s downright miserable.

There’s nothing new I have to say about this today. Certainly nothing that Sherry Turkle hasn’t already said better. I just wanted to share a memory. Today someone mentioned smartphones as a tool for amusing yourself when people are late for meetings, and that triggered a memory from the days before smartphones.

I used to work for a small non-profit organisation. Once we had an off-site meeting. Someone was coming to the meeting, a new potential volunteer. She texted me to say she was early. I was delayed, dealing with an urgent issue that had just blown up. So I sent an employee along ahead of me, saying something like:

“I’ve just got to deal with this. But listen, remember me telling you about Lucy? She’s got there early and I don’t want her to think we’re a bunch of flakes. You head over to the community centre ahead of me and I’ll be about ten minutes.”

Ten minutes later, I arrived at the community centre. Lucy (not her real name) and the employee were sitting in awkward silence. Turns out the employee had not even attempted to introduce himself or explain he was part of the organisation she was coming to meet. He had not apologised for my absence, explained my lateness or indeed mentioned me at all.

Lucy hadn’t tried to introduce herself either. She was slightly worried she was in the wrong building, but it hadn’t occurred to her to ask and it hadn’t occurred to my colleague to reassure her.

To sum up: neither had exchanged a word. Neither of them had even put the kettle on. Both of them just sat in silence next to each other for about ten minutes until I arrived, full of explanations and introductions, arms full of crisps and paperwork. My colleague had understood my instruction – “You head over to the community centre” – but he genuinely hadn’t grasped the implied instruction to greet Lucy and make her welcome. He was hurt when I asked him afterwards why the hell he hadn’t talked to her.

Now we have smartphones, maybe both of them would have been playing with Facebook or something. But the smartphones wouldn’t be the reason why they weren’t talking.

It’s unusual to find adults with so little social initiative, but there are more of them than you’d think. The younger ones hide behind smartphones, sure. But the older ones are perfectly capable of sitting in blank silence without any kind of electronic prop. I’m interested in the question of whether smartphones are training more people to avoid social initiative, but I wanted to share a story to prove they’re not the only problem.

Cathy and Wyclef

March 29, 2013

And I’m on tonight
You know my hips don’t lie
And I’m starting to feel it’s right
All the attraction, the tension
Don’t you see baby, this is perfection

This isn’t about words! This is about Shakira’s body sending a message – and the body cannot lie. This is a time for breathless, passionate inarticulacy. Read the messages of her body and respond to them… Right?

Yep, Shakira’s hips are brilliant at sending out that primal message. She’s just backing it up with words to be on the safe side. Look at my hips. Are you getting the memo? Hell-o! Are you listening?

This is something I see over and over again in Shakira’s work. She enjoys playing with ideas of silence, inarticulacy, miscommunication. She enjoys playing the woman rendered submissive by the man’s superior verbal ability. But then she can’t quite bring herself to really shut up.

I think it’s quite a common fantasy among women who are attracted to men: meeting a man who is more articulate than you are, maybe even better at talking about sex and romance than you are.

Don’t believe me? Pick up a Louise Bagshawe book, or a Mills & Boon. (I did it so you don’t have to. OK, that’s a lie. I do it because I like it.) They never, ever feature a man in the hero role who’s inherently crap at communicating. Sure, the heroine’s beauty might leave him temporarily speechless. Sure, he might hide his lust under a steely facade because they have to do some kind of super-important business deal together. But he is never just a bit rubbish at talking. Never fails to parry her verbal jabs with some zingers of his own.  In a serious conversation about where the relationship is going, he won’t repeatedly fall back on “Um, I don’t know.”

It’s a fantasy because these super-articulate guys are rare. Not because men are inherently bad at talking, but because they’re trained by our culture to be bad at talking. The woman who plays the flustered, inarticulate social submissive usually ends up doing a lot of highly skilled behind-the-scenes work to keep it up. The sexual equivalent would be the sub barking orders at the dom and telling him off for tying the knots all wrong. (And I am certain that happens all the time too. “Oh, Mr Grey, you’re too strong for me! I’m just a simple virgin who – FOR GOD’S SAKE, HAVE YOU LOST THE LUBE AGAIN? WELL, WHERE DID YOU LEAVE IT LAST TIME? IT CAN’T HAVE JUST VANISHED!”)

Back to Shakira. She’s playing the silent dancer whose body does the talking. But this song is, of course, a duet with Wyclef Jean. He’s been cast in the role of the super-articulate man who overwhelms her with his verbal skills. Problem is, his actual reaction to her is hilariously inadequate.

And when you walk up on the dance floor
Nobody cannot ignore the way you move your body, girl
And everything so unexpected – the way you right and left it
So you can keep on shaking it

It’s hardly Lord Byron, is it? But the bit that makes me cringe all the way from my head to my toes is the Year 9 Spanish:

I never really knew that she could dance like this
She makes a man wants to speak Spanish
Como se llama (si), bonita (si), mi casa (si, Shakira Shakira), su casa
Shakira, Shakira

Ouch. Even if you don’t know that these words are directed at a native Spanish speaker, it’s still cringe-o-rama. I can only hope he’s having a laugh too. But Shakira gamely responds as if he’s really come out with some amazing piece of verbal seduction:

Oh baby when you talk like that
You make a woman go mad
So be wise and keep on
Reading the signs of my body

Later on in the song, Wyclef Jean does a bit of rapping, but in true girlfriend-disappointing style, it’s nothing to do with her at all. It’s all about him and his origin myth of being a refugee from Haiti. I used to wonder if Shakira was disappointed that her pal Wyclef had failed so badly. But now I think maybe she was just laughing at him all along.

My favourite piece of perfectly-honed fake inarticulacy and submission comes with these lines:

Oh boy, I can see your body moving
Half animal, half man
I don’t, don’t really know what I’m doing
But you seem to have a plan
My will and self restraint
Have come to fail now, fail now
See, I am doing what I can, but I can’t so you know
That’s a bit too hard to explain

If you actually watch the part of the Hips Don’t Lie video where she’s singing these words, you’ll see she knows exactly what she’s doing. Whenever I watch it, I don’t know whether to laugh out loud or melt into a puddle of lust.

Good behaviour

July 11, 2006

How could I think of a word worthy of his attention? […] As I leaned beside him, the ache of pride and shyness drove me into the farthest depths of silence.
‘Don’t try,’ Hubert said that first night before dinner. I felt his constraint and anxiety. ‘Just be your natural self,’ he advised. So I was not any more the happy joke he and Papa had invented. Desperation filled me. Right, I thought, I can’t talk. But I can eat. I can be the fat woman in the fairground; the man who chews up iron; the pigheaded woman; anything to escape from hopeless me. So, at that first dinner before the first ball, I wolfed down sensational quantities of food. Almost  a side of smoked salmon, and I ate a whole lemon and its peel as well; most of a duck; four meringues and four pêches melbas; mushrooms and marrow on toast; even cheese. ‘What else can we find for her?’ Richard asked Hubert. ‘She really is a great doer.’ They cheered me quietly. I was a joke again. I was a person. I was something for them to talk about.

From Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (1981).

Better than shouting

July 3, 2006

The priest understood no English and did not know what she was saying, and she knew no other language than English, and therefore they spoke through an interpreter, a man who told each of them what the other said.

Then she prayed the priest, in the name of Jesus, that he should make his prayers to the blessed Trinity, to our Lady, and to all the blessed saints in heaven, also urging others who loved our Lord to pray for him, so that he might have grace to understand her language and her speech in such things as she, through the grace of God, would say to him.


Desiring to please God, he followed the advice of this creature, and he prayed to God as devoutly as he could every day, that he might have grace to understand what this creature would say to him, and he also got other lovers of our Lord to pray for him. They prayed in this way for thirteen days. And after thirteen days the priest came back to her to test the effect of their prayers, and then he understood what she said in English to him, and she understood what he said. And yet he did not understand the English that other people spoke; even though they spoke the same words that she spoke, he still did not understand them unless she spoke herself.

From The Book of Margery Kempe. (Penguin Classics edn.)