Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What Do You Mean?

Several months ago, I attended a party overflowing with strangers and a few acquaintances. I’m not at my best surrounded by strangers, but I try to think of it as an adventure. During the course of the evening, I found myself hanging out with a quietly friendly man with alert blue eyes. Suddenly, he blurted, “Has anyone ever told you that you have beautiful hair?”

He caught me off guard with that unexpected question. It’s a question that demands a yes/no answer, though he may have meant it to be a compliment. On the other hand, it could have been a lead-in to a sly insult, no matter what my answer.

“Has anyone ever told you that you have beautiful hair?”
“Why, yes, they have.”
“Really? They must have been blind.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you have beautiful hair?”
“No, I don’t believe so.”
“I can see why not.”

The way I saw it, my new friend left me no choice but to laugh it off with a silly (but true) story about a few compliments I’d received after accidentally coloring my hair an intense pomegranate red. I went on to express my consternation at being unable to tone down the color and avoid all the attention it was bringing me. I wanted to stop talking, but words just kept falling out of my mouth!

Now, if he had said what he meant (which I hope was complimentary), I could have responded with a sincere “thank you.” Instead, I’m left with the memory of my excessive laughter and awkward verbiage. Sighhh…

In real life, you can avoid confusion by saying exactly what you mean (doing so graciously, I hope, when the message is less than pleasant). In fiction, unless you purposefully want to cause confusion as part of the plotline, you should consider saying what you, and your character, mean. The best dialogue (in novels as well as real life) informs, entertains, and moves the story forward. I’m not sure the party conversation above does that … unless it was the beginning of a romantic comedy? (So far, that doesn’t appear to be the case.)

Do you say what you mean? Have you ever been on the receiving end of a compliment that wasn’t really a compliment? Share your experience in the comment box!

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