Tag Archives: litotes

The Society for Appropriate Compliments

As an English speaker from England, I enjoy and lament many things about the use of this fine language of mine.

Language is formed of habits, and not all habits are healthy. English is the glue to endless and multiple confusions and misinterpretations both of language and behaviour, as it spreads itself around the world.

In particular, I’m watching “social” media come between people and their more important statements. Formality seems passé, but it is crucial to peaceful co-existence, and despite being seen as impersonal, often a far more appropriate response than any “personal touch”.

For example, the bereaved. People these days can read each others comments, and it seems there’s a bird-like clamour of similar messages which queue up on a post about death. These are meant to show sympathy but actually show nothing of the kind – they just indicate that someone thought they would show they cared, probably because some other people were doing that, in between liking a funny video or buying a new pair of pants.

Observe the repeated formulations of commiseration. Very few of them escape cliché, but that is acceptable because it is mostly painless, unless you think for more than a second about is actually happening. “My thoughts and prayers are with you at this time” – maybe so, momentarily, but I don’t believe there will be any special kneeling in the majority of cases. The writer of this platitude won’t spend too much of their time on those prayers, if any at all, and so in the vast majority of cases it’s dishonest. However, this innocent phrase is religious-person shorthand for “I’m sorry to hear that”. Using it doesn’t make them bad people, maybe just a little vacuous, and at least it’s not rocking so many boats.

People reach for sincerity but find hyperbole. “Gone far too young” is always too dramatic even when used for the untimely death of young, or eminent people. Who are we to know what time the cosmic clock has set for anyone? The phrase seems at best to be a reference to life’s brief flickering candle, at worst to the pointless futility of life itself and our ultimate powerlessness, but in any case, your personal philosophies of life and death really are no business of the bereaved in this situation. Loading your fears onto the emotional bandwagon at the time of someone else’s grief might be an honest response, but it’s not helpful.

Unless you’re a close relative or friend, or part of the medical team who should have tried harder to keep the person alive, you should normally stick to formula and avoid honesty. Though it may be honest, “I’ll remember next time, it’s the green tube” is not comforting. Just stick to formula. “I am sorry for your loss” is real, if small. It doesn’t matter that it’s unoriginal. So is death.

I wish that people everywhere would be less enthralled by the play of sincerity, and would use that most important of human expressions denoting seriousness, empathy and concern where it is important.

Likewise, the use of compliments. Yes, some people really are wonderfully talented and attract thousands of admirers, but people with lots of followers have mostly been playing the popularity game, for reasons of personal insecurity or of the desire for personal wealth, and they attract other people whose admiration is mainly based on their success in being successful, rather than anything they actually do. I watch the flocks of people who have opted into praise as a way of life with something approaching despair.

For example, Instagram. Some truly wonderful photography and art on this network, no matter the naysayers. It’s as valid a platform for sharing the fruits of your camera and your editing as anywhere. But, the choruses of delight which churn out at every post serve to challenge the mind. I wish for every “Fantastic!” to read “I have seen this” – which is what they are actually saying. It’s especially galling when one or other talented, famous, deserving photographic artist posts an image which falls below their usual standards, and the compliments rain down just the same, like damp cake falling from the soaked table at a rained-off wedding.

I wish all the flowery clichés to wither and die and for the instinct for this over-the-top gushing, this mania for hyperbole to be replaced with a universal sincerity, the rise of thoughtful truth, or even litotes, the art of understatement. “Not bad” is good.

In our use of language, commiseration and compliments, it’s the same situation as the loudness war, where the desire to stand out in contemporary recorded music has been driving the quality of the final mastered mixes inexorably downward. We need dynamic range in our daily expressions.

I want people to adjust, so that seeing the comment “Acceptable” on something you have created, rather than assuming your work is being damned by faint praise, this simple, unadorned comment becomes the reason for a happy glow.

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