On being … cryptic
A friend and I had planned on getting together for dinner the other day. Both of us have been really busy so other than choose the date, we left the plans open in terms of time and place. The day before our get together he e-mailed to ask if we were still on. I e-mailed back saying sure, and asking where he’d like to go and what time.
He wrote back saying he wasn’t sure about the timing because he was going to be doing something that day with his brother and he would need to work around his brother’s family’s schedule because right now they were having some “challenges” at home. (Yes, he used quotation marks in the e-mail.) After I wrote him back to say any time was fine for me and that he could let me know when he figures out what works for him, I re-read his message and his use of the word “challenges” set my mind in motion.
To be honest, my first thought was that he was being a bit dramatic. I know his brother has a couple kids and I know that sometimes he finds their get togethers a bit chaotic. Maybe “challenges” was his code word for the stress that comes with the hubbub of two children under four years old running around underfoot.
My next thought was more a realization of my own feeling of irritation at his choice of words. Challenge? Why is it that nowadays no one ever says they have a problem? Instead, everything is a challenge. Or “issue”. Please…
Then I started to wonder if something really was up. I thought back on recent conversations we’ve had, trying to remember if he’d mentioned anything going on with his brother. Had he said something in passing that I didn’t pick up on? Nothing came to mind…
Then I started worrying that maybe something really bad has happened. Maybe his brother is sick. Maybe he lost his job. Maybe he and his wife are splitting. Maybe something’s happened with one of their kids. Maybe it’s too disturbing for my friend to talk about. Or maybe it’s so terrible he’s still processing it and doesn’t have the words to explain it. Jeez… I hope it’s nothing serious…
And yes, eventually (inevitably?), I thought maybe it’s about me… Did he not trust me enough to tell me what the problem (I mean “challenge”) was? Did he think I wouldn’t understand? Did he think I’d criticize his brother? Did he worry I’d think less of him -- or his brother -- because of whatever it is?
Fortunately, I was brought back into the present when I heard the whistle of the tea kettle I had set to boil right after our e-mail exchange. (Yes -- all these thoughts flew through my head in about the time it took to boil water.) As I was waiting for the tea to steep I started feeling guilty, chiding myself for reading anything into the comment. Surely he didn’t mean anything by it, I told myself. Besides, whatever it is that’s going on, it’s none of my business and that’s probably why he didn’t say more. I then promised myself I wouldn’t even ask…
Before settling back into my work, my mind lingered on a topic I’ve thought a fair bit about: the question of why so many people don’t seem to realize that when they use veiled language or mention something but don’t elaborate on it -- they’re fuelling speculation. I suspect they hold back details or explanation out of some sense that they’re being discrete. But don’t they “get” that all they’re doing is creating a vacuum that’s ripe for filling and that the conclusions people jump to are often more negative or unseemly than the truth.
Anyway, later that afternoon my friend called and we finalize our plans. Happy that the arrangements had been made -- and anxious to get back to the project I was working on -- I began to wrap up the conversation. Before I could say goodbye, however, in a rather hushed tone my friend said, “So … It turns out they have bed bugs”.
It took me a second to figure out he was referring to his brother. Then it took me a few minutes to get beyond ewwww, yuckkkkkk, and grossssss before I was composed enough to ask how it happened. Turns out it was kind of a long story, which is why -- at least in part -- he didn’t tell me the news in his e-mail. After we hung up, I had to laugh. Despite all the dark places my mind went – bed bugs never even crossed my mind!
Over dinner the next day I confessed to my friend that his vague reference to “challenges” set my mind wandering and my imagination working overtime. I then asked him if I could write about it for On being… because I think there are a couple lessons in it. He laughed and graciously said sure -- remarking that one never knows where inspiration will come from.
So now, to sum up what I think are the take-aways from this little interlude. The first has to do with how sometimes trying to be discrete leads to more questions and speculation than simply filling in some details -- and that when you leave blanks people will fill them in with whatever their own imagination brings forth. The second is kind of the flip side of that coin: no matter how intuitive you might think you are, or how right you think you might be when it comes to figuring out what someone’s getting at when they don’t actually tell you what they mean -- chances are very good that you’re wrong. Completely wrong. I mean bed bug wrong.
© 2011 Ingrid Sapona