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June 8, 2011

It’s all in the game

Try this. When I say “Hey,” you say, “Hey.” Got it? Hey.

Did you say, “Hey?” OK.

Let’s try another. When I say, “Hey,” you say, “Ho!” Hey.

Did you say, “Ho?” Did I say, “Hey?” Hmm.

Maybe I should divide the room. If you are on the right side of the room, say, “Hey,” when I say “Hey,” and if you are on the left side of the room, say, “Onomatopoeia Timbuktu!” No, I’m kidding. If you are on the left side of the room, say “Ho,” when I say “Hey.” Hey!

Very funny. If you aren’t going to play along, you can just go read something else. Ha ha ha.

So, maybe I should do it this way: Let’s divide the room into four sections. I will point toward a corner of the room and say “Hey” or “Ho,” and if you are in the part of the room I point at, you just repeat what I say. Hey! Hey! Ho! Hey! Hey! Ho! Hey! Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Ho!

Oh, that’s fun! (If you took a picture of me pointing every which way, you can post it on Facebook and tag me.)

OK. When you’re done talking amongst yourselves, we can get on with it.

Hello!

Very good. You have obviously played this game before! But please allow me to diverge from the rules for a moment; you don’t have to repeat everything I say. Especially when I start quoting long passages of Proust. In French. I think Andy Kaufman used to do a bit kind of like that. He was so funny.

I’m kidding, of course; I can’t speak French. I can’t even recite it passably. I suppose if someone were to say a short phrase, very slowly, I might be able to comprehend the phonetic rules and repeat it somewhat adequately, but that isn’t really the same thing as being able to speak the language. Oh, but I’ve changed a definition. I apologize. We were engaging in the activity of repeating words, and then I slyly started acting like we were discussing the idea of conversation, which isn’t really the same thing. (And while I am not meaning for this column to be “about” the idea of changing definitions, I have to advise that it is an extremely valuable concept to understand and master, especially if you are Groucho Marx or a Republican.)

Oddly enough, however, the simple repeating of phrases is the basis of many basic “conversations,” thus:

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

“How are you?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“Good to see you.”

“Good to see you, too.”

“Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.”

How many times have you had this conversation (or something similar) today? I have learned how to have this conversation in Spanish. I recognize that some of the phrases aren’t exactly reflective, but the model proceeds like a tennis match, each volley is answered with an “expected” response. In a way, it is comforting to know that you have the script memorized, but the exchange isn’t significantly rewarding.

Those of us who are a bit more socially ambitious (or simply have time to kill) might find, somewhere between lines five and six, for instance, an opportunity to elaborate upon circumstances general or specific, the weather, perhaps, or some cute thing that happened recently, like helping a bunch of baby ducks get across Breckenridge Lane. As a lover of great narratives, I tend to make time for anyone who might have a good story to tell, but that is part of the reason why I am always late getting where I am supposed to be. That, and I’m also likely to jump out of my car and help baby ducks get across Breckenridge Lane if the opportunity arises.

For further consideration: One of the greatest conversational relationships in all of pop culture can be found in the Jim Jarmusch movie, “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.” At several points during the film, the title character, played by Forest Whitaker, converses with a Haitian man who runs the local ice cream truck. The Haitian doesn’t speak English, and Whitaker’s character doesn’t speak French, so they ostensibly do not understand one another, but we can tell (by way of subtitles) that the assumptions they make regarding the nuances in their communication are perhaps more accurate than various communications that take place between characters who speak the same language.