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© Jeff Matthews   entry Sept 2015   Allegro ma non troppo #24  (original pub. date, Lion Magazine, 1990-5)

Free Tips for the Tongue-tied


If you pay as much attention to the back covers of book catalogs as I do, you notice the same bargains cropping up time and again. They have titles such as Verbal Strategy or Back Talk or Tongue Fu, The Oriental Art of Killing With Words. (This last one works only if you speak Tibetan, but it's the principle we're concerned with, here.) They have sub-titles like "How to Keep from being Verbally Intimidated, Threatened and Abused", or, even better, "How to Verbally Intimidate, Threaten and Abuse". They start at $39.95 in hard cover and wind up in paperback, remaindered on the back of my catalog at 17 cents per pound. They claim to teach you the necessary verbal tactics for conquering common problems and fears in speaking, teaching you such things as, "Breaking into a group of people talking"; "Stopping people from interrupting you"; and "Introducing yourself to members of the opposite sex," etc. etc. They are usually written by moonlighting university sociolinguists. They're all wet. Here, save some money.

Breaking into a Group of People Talking. Suppose, now, that you see Harry and John over there talking, and you decide that you want to expand the turn-taking of their conversational dyad, or, as sociolinguists might say in their quaint in-group jargon, 'butt in'. Most of these books advise you to saunter over and say something like: 'Yes, Harry and John, I, too, have given this matter some thought, and you know…"

Un-ungh, which, if I am spelling it correctly, means, "no; ixnay; forget it; stop, you fool, before it's too late!"  Although the books do helpfully advise you to substitute your potential partners' real names for 'Harry and John', the above is still bum advice. The real best way to break into a conversation successfully is to wave your arms and run towards your target group with your eyes wide open and your nostrils flaring (although flaring eyes and wide open nostrils have been known to work equally well) and stop just before you crash into them. (Remember that the impression you are trying to create here is that of a serial axe-murderer who can still be coaxed into a change of heart if he is treated right.) Then bark out in a high staccato voice: "You there! You stop talking! It's my turn to talk now!"

Or, say that it really is Harry and John standing over there. My special free-just-for-you variation on the expensive book advice is to walk over and say, "Yes, Mary and Betty, I, too, have given this matter some thought, and you know…". Or, even more subtle: you might point to nothing in the sky and when they look up, you bonk one of their Adam's apples with your index finger. Careful, though, to get that cork-like 'pop' sound out of it, because that will be the spring-board into your opening conversational gambit, which will then be something like, 'Hot-damn, that sure sounds weird, don't it?'

Stopping People from Interrupting you. Here, most of your high-priced sociolinguists offer human-potential California-guru drivel such as, "Make the verbal interloper feel that his/her opinions are highly valued, and thank him slash her for 'sharing' and for waiting his slash her turn even though he slash she was really being rude". Well, slash that. Like I'm Mahatma Gandhi or someone, just waiting around to forgive boors. The most effective way to deal with a buttinski is to say: "P. U.! It smells like something just died! Oh, it's only buffalo-breath over here. Hey, why don't you get some manners, pal?" A more satisfying variation on this is to step slightly behind and to the side of the alleged 'verbal interloper' and, if you don't know the Vulcan whammy, twist one of his arms up behind him in that variation of the 'come along' grip—the one which causes permanent damage to his wrist— forcing him to one knee, while you go on with your conversation in the following manner: "As I was saying, ethical skepticism (...buddy, if you ever…) at first appears to be a normative ethical doctrine (…and I mean ever!—)  but it is difficult to understand it (...do that again…) as other than a claim about the logic of justification (...you…are…dead… meat!…) in ethics and thus a part of (...you got that, Bucko?!) metaethics."

How to meet persons of the opposite sex. Most sociolinguists are no better than the rest of us at picking up babes. (Here, I use the term 'babe' in the modern liberated generic sense to mean a 'desirable person of the opposite sex, or, alternately, in the super-modern, super-liberated, super-generic sense of a 'desirable person of the same sex'). They still say things like: "You are so much like that woman in Wozinski's last novel, a woman I thought was fiction—that is, until now." (Here, I use the term 'woman' to mean… etc. etc.)  That's  pretty lame. What can I say? The two that have always worked for me are: "Say, you're of the opposite sex, aren't you?" and "Please don't scream, I just want to touch your hair."


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