Category Archives: language

What YOLO Means

Much as I hate acronyms, one that has wedged its way into common parlance is YOLO. It stands for You Only Live Once. What it means is open to interpretation – by me at least.

Is YOLO a mindset, a lifestyle, or a philosophy? It’s a slippery concept, one that can mean many things to many people. I can think of at least four different ways it is used, some of which I can see as being good.

The first group of YOLO-ers are those who hear You Only Live Once and take it as a dare. These are the adrenaline junkies. They pursue extreme sports, pushing the boundaries of what is sport and what is a death wish. Base-jumping, for example – parachuting from a high cliff or mesa, or even a building. There is no reserve parachute, probably because there isn’t time to use one before making that hard landing. Some people don’t even bother with the parachute, relying instead on a “wingsuit,” something that makes the jumper look like a flying squirrel. Injury or death is a very real possibility. In fact, it is considered the world’s most dangerous sport.

(People who engage in pursuits such as base-jumping and heli-skiing – jumping from a helicopter to begin a back-country ski run – are a bit different from the people who receive Darwin Awards for accidentally removing themselves from the gene pool by causing their own deaths in spectacularly stupid ways. One, for example, was a man who took literally his martial arts instructor’s statement about being able to fight lions. But I digress.)

I don’t understand these people. They only live once, and maybe not very long at that.

Then there are people who believe that You Only Live Once, so they try to cram as many experiences as possible into that one life. These are the people with dozens of pursuits and hobbies, who try out new ones so quickly that their friends can’t keep up with them all. They may shift from computer games to hot air ballooning to scuba diving to photography to whatever comes next. Or the ones who dabble in poetry, astronomy, musical instruments, martial arts, and horseback riding.

They may not become experts at any of these pursuits, but that’s not the point. The point is to try out a lot of different sorts of activities. They may be adrenaline afficiandos, but stop short of being junkies. Activities that could become extreme like bungee jumping are done with supervision and safety equipment.

I like people like this. They have the best stories and the best conversation. They only live once, but they live it with variety and gusto.

There are also people who believe that You Only Live Once and want to make sure that that one life lasts as long as possible. They eat right and exercise. They believe in moderation. They walk or jog five miles a day. They live by various diet philosophies and take lots of vitamins.

I do admire these people. They have dedication, stamina, and determination that I simply don’t. They do the things a person should do. Many of them even enjoy it, rather than viewing it as self-denial and a chore. They can, of course, be thwarted in their quest for longevity by genetics, accidents not of their own making, the eventual onset of old age (though perhaps later than the rest of us experience it), or diseases like various cancers that have no respect for how healthy you’ve been in the past.

But the kind of YOLO-ers I find most interesting and laudable are those who believe that, because they have only one life to live, want to do as much as they can to affect the lives of others.

Teachers, firefighters, and those in the helping professions. Blood donors, librarians, and philanthropists of every stripe. Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, good neighbors. Those who care. Those who listen. Those who contribute. Those who share life, make it better, and keep it going. Even people who sacrifice their lives for the sake of others.

These are the people who really know what it means to only live once, and to make the most of it.

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What the Cool Kids Do

Playing Wordle is the newest obsession among the cool kids. And I have never been a cool kid.

Let me say first that I am not in. This screenshot is taken from a friend’s Facebook feed. He tried nobly to resist the lure of Wordle, but ultimately gave in and got in.

For those not in the know, Wordle is the newest internet craze, a word game (almost certainly a portmanteau of “word” and “puzzle”) that asks you to guess letters and determine what the target words actually are. To me, it’s sort of like Wheel of Fortune combined with Hangman. It’s supposed to improve your general brain health.

Every day there is a new puzzle, and people post their scores on the internet. (Not everyone is happy about this. I have heard complaints from friends about the number of Wordle scores clogging up their news feeds. It does seem an awful lot like bragging, at least when their scores are low. Another friend is hoping to see “floccinaucinihilipilification” show up as one of the daily words, which seems unlikely, as the words are only five letters long. Perhaps eventually they will have a 29-letter version. But I digress.)

It’s not like I haven’t had my clickie game addictions. I used to be a devotée of Candy Crush, Pet Rescue, and Bingo Blitz. I’d play several games of each nearly every day. My husband would ask me, “When are you going to be off the computer?” I would answer, “After I lose the next game.” I never bought any of the “power-ups” that cost actual money, though, which is probably why I kept losing.

I don’t know if Wordle sells hints or letters or power-ups or whatever. I didn’t know how the game designers made their money at all. I thought maybe they were selling users’ info to data mining sites or Russian trolls or something. Then I found out. The New York Times bought Wordle. I don’t need to ask how they’re going to monetize it. I used to solve the New York Times Crossword Puzzle regularly, which did cost money to play. I had forgotten that I had a subscription to it, which you can get without subscribing to the actual New York Times. I only recently remembered that I had a subscription to it and started playing again, though it happens that I like the acrostics more than the actual crosswords.

(I once worked at a place where they came down on me pretty hard for solving crosswords during working hours. I justified it on the grounds that I don’t smoke and never took a cigarette break. I thought taking a puzzle break was therefore justified. The powers-that-were didn’t agree. But I digress. Again.)

In addition to the aforementioned clickie games, I have dabbled in other online games that I felt were a cut above the run-of-the-mill inane ones, ones that ask a player to build a hypothetical theme park or solve a not-so-hidden objects puzzle. Once I played a lot of Words With Friends, back when that was the thing the cool kids did. I’m a word nerd, so I did pretty well, but I learned that people who were skilled at hitting the double letter and triple word score squares could take me down.

Will I continue to be unattracted by the admittedly fascinating lure of Wordle? Or will I be like my friend and eventually say, “I’m in”?

I’ve generally reveled in my not-a-cool-kid status. Why should I give it up for Wordle? It’s not like I need another time-sink. Facebook already serves me too well at that. And I don’t need to get rid of all those game addictions only to succumb to yet another. If I want to improve my mind, I’ll just read a book.

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These Are Words?

No, I’m not going to complain about neologisms such as “yeet,” which are actually useful, even if I do have to look them up in the Urban Dictionary. Instead, I have some things to say about recent words I’ve encountered that make little sense to me or that I have misread as something else entirely. I find these words perplexing, for a variety of reasons.

One I encountered recently is “sewist,” which is easy to mistake for “sexist” if you’re skimming (or typing, if you’re very bad at it). I think it is an attempt to replace the possibly-problematic-gender-wise “seamstress.” You can’t just retrofit it to “seamster,” I guess, in the way that “actress” has been. (I must admit that it is still difficult for me to refer to Angelina Jolie or Maggie Smith as an actor. I suppose I’ll get used to it, though it’s going to take me a while. But I digress.) There’s always “sewer,” I suppose, though that’s as unlikely to catch on as “sewist,” probably because, pronounced differently, it already has an entrenched (sorry not sorry) meaning.

I must point out that there is another, already existing, term that conveys the same content in an equally nonsexist manner: “fabric artist.” Admittedly, it does have the drawback of being two words and four syllables, which is difficult for speakers to handle in this fast-paced modern world. But the term also conveys the idea of someone skilled in making beautiful things (as well as useful ones) in a way that “sewist” just doesn’t.

The next candidate for Worst New Word is “sanism,” which I thought at first was shorthand (or a mistyping) of “satanism.” After reading further in the passage, I realized that “sanism” was one of the many “-ism” words that refer to offensive, discriminatory practices – like ageism, sexism, lookism (not kidding), racism, colorism (which is different from racism), ableism, and the like.

“Sanism” refers to the oppressive dominance of sanity, over what or whom, I’m still trying to determine. Surely not insanity, which is, these days, a legal term (not guilty by reason of) and not one that should be used to refer to people with mental health issues. Perhaps it refers to the presumption that everyone is sane until proven otherwise, which sounds to me like another class (sorry not sorry) of privilege.

Perusing Merriam-Webster’s words that were added to the dictionary in 2021, one comes across “copypasta” (which does not refer to stealing recipes); “teraflop” (which is not an unsuccessful dinosaur); “halotherapy” (which is not a religious term); “hard pass” (which is not a football term); and “gig worker” (which is not someone who spears frogs).

Of course, none of these may catch on the way “truthiness” did after it was introduced on The Stephen Colbert Show. It was just so darn useful, and resonated with those observing the political scene in 2020, when M-W noticed the word.

One other word that has been resurrected this year, though not with its previous meaning, is “oobleck.” This, of course, was coined by the illustrious Dr. Seuss (one of my first (and still) all-time favorite authors) in Bartholomew and the Oobleck, where it referred to a kind of goopy green snow. Now it means a substance made from cornstarch and water that behaves like a solid at times and like a liquid at others.

Personally, I approve. I think Dr. Seuss would have been proud. Or chuffed, if he were British.

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The Wacky World of Proofreading

I’ve done a lot of proofreading in my life. I’ve worked as a writer-proofreader-editor for a small publishing company – so small that I sometimes had to fill all those functions to get an issue out. I’ve bartered proofreading academic papers for someone who offered guitar lessons in exchange. And, God help me, I’ve had to proofread my own work, which is by far the worst kind of proofing.

Now I’ve entered into an entirely new version of the practice.

It started like this.

While working on my novel (still unpublished), I needed a gig to make a little money (very little money, as it turned out). So I turned to a transcription service. This company did not transcribe medical dictation or court cases, as many think when they first hear the term. Rather, it involved transcribing mostly business meetings and occasionally interviews or podcasts. As you might guess, when the pandemic hit, business picked up because so many businesses were teleconferencing rather than talking in person. In fact, I wast kept quite busy four days a week, and sometimes extra jobs on the weekends or holidays if there was additional work that needed doing.

(When I talk about this, people sometimes think that it sounds terribly interesting. It isn’t. I hated business meetings and conferences when I had to attend them, let alone listen to them over and over as I transcribed audio files. I privately gave awards for “the world’s longest run-on sentence,” “the most ‘you knows’ and ‘I means,'” and so forth. But I digress.)

Of course, the company employed proofreaders, too, to check the work that the typists had done. But typing paid more per minute of audio than proofreading did, so despite my truly crappy typing, I signed on as a typist. (I never took typing in high school, and back then, they didn’t have keyboarding. Typing was considered a “business” or “secretarial” course at the time, and I was on the college track. Entering college as an English major, I soon learned the error of that way of thinking. English majors are required to write – and, of course, type – dozens of papers per semester. But I digress. Again.)

Two phenomena threw the typing arrangement into disarray. First was the (perhaps ill-advised) resumption of in-person business meetings. The other was the progress made in AI audio dictation software. I once used a dictation function to transcribe an interview that I did. The output was mediocre at best.

Dictation transcription software was supposed to have gotten better since the early days. And I suppose it has – but not enough to make proofreading obsolete, for which I am profoundly grateful.

What I do now is listen to the audio and edit the computer-transcribed version. It’s really editing, but they still call it proofreading.

And – wouldn’t you know? – all those run-on sentences and “you knows” and “I means” are still in there and need taking out. There are speaker names and company names that the AI attempted to spell phonetically that I need to look up and correct. There are passages from speakers with a foreign accent that aren’t transcribed even close to what the speakers said. The paragraphing is dubious and the punctuation appalling. Once, the software even transcribed “yearend” as “urine.”

All told, it doesn’t take me quite as long as typing it would have, but I usually need to do a first proofing pass and then one or two proofing-proofing passes.

It’s a drag. It still beats proofreading my own writing, though.

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The World of Cats

Once I was reading Julie and Julia (or maybe it was Julia Child’s memoirs) when I came across the statement that because she was living in France, she needed a pousiquette. I had studied French since junior high through college, and though my French is so rusty it has holes in it, I couldn’t place the word. Was it some piece of French cooking equipment? An herbaceous plant?

I began to sound out the word: poo-see-kett. Then it hit me: Julia needed a pussycat! Despite the fact that the French word for cat is chat and for pussycat is minou (I looked it up), Julia, with her inimitable flair, had made up her own word. I’ve been using it ever since and the cats don’t seem to mind (or notice).

Then recently, I learned through Facebook that the French equivalent for “purr” is ronron, which seemed a lovely approximation of the sound of a purr. I began looking up other languages’ words for “purr.” I was somewhat disappointed to learn that many other languages simply use the word “purr.” Spanish, being a Romance language like French, used ronroneo.

Other countries were more inventive. “Purr” in Vietnamese is gugu. In Croatian, it’s presti. In Japan, a cat expresses contentment by going gorogoro. German and Dutch pretty much agree on schneurren and snorren (which bring to mind “snore” rather than “purr.” This is okay with me, as we have a cat that snores. Daintily, but she snores.)

I even looked up Italian (fusa, for some reason, despite its being another Romance language), Korean (puleuleu), Hindi (myaoon), Romanian (tors), Hungarian (dorombolas), Swedish (spinna), Polish (mruczec), and Russian (murlykat).

While I was at it, I also looked up the word for “pussycat.” Spanish: minino. Dutch: poesje. Polish: kisia. Korean: goyang-i. Japanese: neko neko. Italian: micia. Hungarian: punci. Swedish: kisse (which I think is adorbz).

I restrained myself (ran out of time, really) before I could look up different versions of “meow.” Another time, I will. (But Julia’s pousiquette would have said “miaou.” With a French accent, no doubt.)

My husband and I have traveled a bit, and we love meeting cats around the world, no matter how they purr. I was in Mexico, staying at a small resort, where cats had the run of the place. The cats’ main duties seemed to be to take up lounge chairs and hope guests would drop ice cream. Each resort cat that had been neutered had a slight clip on the ear to indicate its nonreproductive status. (I understand this is also a practice in the US, a procedure known as TNR, for Trap-Neuter-Release. The clipped ear indicates the cat does not need to be trapped again. But I digress.)

In the Slovenian Alps, we met another cat with a much more strenuous job. As tourists went single file exploring the Plitvice Lakes, at the head of the column trotted a black-and-white cat who seemed to have appointed itself the tour guide. It was easy to follow even in the falling snow.

In Dubrovnik, we met a small black kitten, who proved that cat games are universal. We had dropped a brown paper bag on the ground and the kitten immediately crawled into it. We thought it was playing the bag-mice game, in which a cat makes a rattling sound in a bag and then tries to catch the imaginary mouse. But when we tried to extract the cat, we quickly learned that it would not leave the bag and wanted to go home with us. We were tempted.

Soon, we hope to go to Ireland, where, disappointingly, the pussycats will purr, just as they do in the US. Maybe we’ll find out whether Irish pussycats play the bag-mice game too. I’m betting yes.

Learning Things

This is a poster I have in my study. Lately, I have begun thinking that what it really should say is “That’s what I do. I read books and I learn things.” To put it simply, I wouldn’t know things if I didn’t learn things. And now I think the learning is perhaps more important than the knowing.

I had a course in grad school that was called Research and Bibliography. (We called it R&B.) We did the usual things you do as an English major – write papers about assorted literary figures, mostly. (I once did a paper on William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. I referred to it as my “Willie and Wally” paper. But I digress.)

The final exam, however, was not an essay test or another sort of normal academic exercise. It was, in essence, a scavenger hunt in the university library. Each of the seven or so students had her or his own personal set of questions and had to find the answers. The trick was, you had to know where to find the answers, not so much what the actual answers were. Each set of questions could be answered using the same reference books (this was before computers were available to anyone except the librarians), and students were allowed to point each other to the correct ones.

For example, a question might be “When John Milton used the word pandemonium, how long had it been part of the English language?” (Trick question: Milton invented the word. It means, literally, “all the devils.”) The answer could be found in a reference book called the OED, or Oxford English Dictionary. Another student would have a different question that also required using the OED. And you could say, “you’ll find that in the OED.”

In that case, the test was not at all about knowing the answers to the questions, but knowing – or learning – where to find them (something that we should have learned from writing our papers and bibliographies).

There are different types of learning. My husband learns mostly by visual means, absorbing information through television documentaries, for example. Some children learn their letters and numbers best by drawing them in a sand tray or fingerpainting them. For a while, these multiple styles of learning – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. – were a major influence on education, and teachers were encouraged to use a different style if a child wasn’t learning through the one that was normally used to teach. (They may still be. I haven’t done textbooks in years.)

So. I read books and I know things – but only because I learn them. I was reading a book about mountaineering, for example, and came across the word salopettes. I could tell from the context that it was an item of clothing, but I just had to learn which one. A quick Google and I learned that salopettes are to the French (and mountain climbers) what bibbed overalls are over here (only, presumably, down-filled instead of denim). It’s a completely useless thing to know – I can’t imagine it being useful even on Jeopardy. But it was fun to learn.

Of course, I’m not putting down reading or knowing. For me, reading is what comes before learning, and knowing is what comes after. And, for me at least, both are pleasurable occupations.

I wrote about learning a while back, and this is what I said about it:

I count a day when I don’t learn something new as a day wasted. I love it when I’m able to start a Facebook post with TIL (Today I learned) or “I was today years old when I learned that….” Learning is all around you. You just have to reach out and grab it!

That’s still my philosophy.

Say What?

athalete Sh! Cherokees!

When I was a college student (approximately 100 years ago), I was an English major who also dabbled in linguistics. I can’t say that my liberal arts education left me with many skills that led to high-paying, prestigious jobs, though I never ended up flipping burgers. (I was a cashier in a restaurant, but that was while working my way through school).

But my education has left me with a few things that I treasure: a compulsion to read, a desire to write, skills for editing, and a nearly uncontrollable desire to correct people. I gave up on being a Grammar Nazi a while back, because I sensed it wasn’t conducive to making friends, and a lot of the old “rules” (like not splitting infinitives) make no sense anymore.

What I haven’t been able to shake, though, is a cringe when someone mispronounces a word. Ath-a-lete. Nuc-yul-ar. Foil-age. I’ve corrected my husband on that one so many times, when he’s reading seed catalogues to me, that I swear by now he’s doing it on purpose.

Once I even called up a radio station because the news announcer said Bo-GOH-ta instead of BO-ga-ta. Aside from my husband, though, I’ve given up correcting people’s pronunciation unless they ask me to.

(This actually does happen. A former boss of mine was talking about an article he read and was talking about a sarcophagus. He must have seen me wince, though I tried not to show it. “Is that how you pronounce it?” he asked, and I then enlightened him. (This incident indicates not ignorance on his part, but the fact that he had only ever seen the word written and was guessing at the pronunciation. But I digress.))

One of the common words that still makes me cringe is how people pronounce “chipotle.” Almost invariably, they say chi-pol-tay instead of chi-poat-lay. This is actually an understandable mistake, as there are few words in English that include the sounds tl together in that order. To get it, you have to smash two words together, like “hot links.” That’s easy enough to pronounce, but when the combo shows up in the middle of a single word it seems baffling.

I also dabbled in Russian in college. Among the peculiarities of the Russian language – and there are many, including the Cyrillic alphabet – is that there are letters that stand for more than one sound at a time. It’s like in English, where the letter z can stand for regular z (as in zip) or zh (as in azure). But Russian carries it to the extreme. They have one letter that stands for the sound ch, and another one for sh, and yet another one for zh.

But they don’t stop at that. There is even a Cyrillic letter that stands for four different letters in English: shch. (It looks kind of like a small w with a tail on the end.) The letter is useful (for Russians, anyway), as it occurs in the word for cabbage soup and the name of the Soviet Union’s former head, Nikita Krushchev.

When my Russian instructor was trying to teach us this sound, he had us repeat the phrase “fresh cheese.” That was about the only place in English where the sounds occur together naturally. (You can think of others, like “fish chips” or “harsh chimps,” of course, but those are harder to remember.)

One day I was explaining this to my husband, rather pedantically, I expect, and I said that there were no English words that had the shch sound at the beginning of a word or a phrase. He looked pensive for a moment, then got a smile.

“Sh! Cherokees!” he said. I surrendered. I was defeated. By a man who still says “foilage.”

Don’t Mention It

Headline writers – love ’em or hate ’em. Sometimes they write hilarious headlines (though usually unintentionally) like “Murder victims seldom talk to police.” Those are the ones that make me laugh.

Then there are the ones that piss me off – the ones where the headline writer (usually not the same person that wrote the story) feels compelled to tell the world a woman’s reproductive status as if it were vital to the story. You know the ones I mean:

Grandmother locks intruder in basement

Mother of three wins science prize

Mom of the Year saved from serial killer

In each of these cases, the news is that someone foiled an intruder, won a prize, or escaped a terrible fate. If you must say it was a woman, which may or may not be relevant to the story, at least leave out whether she has managed to reproduce.

“Grandmother” headlines usually indicate that an older woman accomplished something. What do they put if she’s not a grandmother? That’s right, they focus on her age. “75-year-old woman locks intruder in basement.” I say, pick one. Either “75-year-old locks intruder in basement” or “Woman locks intruder in basement.” That’s enough information to make me want to read the story.

Or use a sex-neutral term: “Professor won science prize.” “Kettering resident locks intruder in basement.” “Intended victim saved from serial killer.” And think about it. You never see a headline that says “Father of three runs for city council.”  Deep down, the writers know that reproductive status is irrelevant to the story – as long as it’s a man who’s done something worth mentioning.

I also despise what is known as “inspiration porn” – those stories that tell how some brave boy invites a disabled girl to the prom. There’s always a photo so we can see that she uses a wheelchair, or has Down’s Syndrome, or something. We all applaud the boy for being so courageous and understanding.

These stories, while they may be meant to demonstrate that a person with a disability can still “live a normal life,” actually stress that it is rare enough an event for it to be news. The boy is the hero of the story, with the girl merely a prop for his altruistic nature. He’s seen as doing good by asking an “otherwise-undateable” partner to the dance. Frankly, I’d be embarrassed to be singled out in the news as either one of the couple.

Then there was Chopped, which I watched the other night. One of the guest judges had a prosthetic hand, a hook sort of arrangement. I was so pleased to see that no one even mentioned it, as it was not relevant to whether the man had a discerning palate.

Eventually, it was mentioned – by the man himself – during a discussion of harvesting stinging nettles. (He said that when foraging for them, he “used the hook.”) At that point, one of the other judges asked about it, respectfully, “if you don’t mind sharing,” and the guest judge told how he lost his lower arm to electrocution and should have died. I give all the Chopped team credit for carrying on as usual. Until and unless the man brought up the subject himself, I doubted that anyone would have said a word.

True, judge Chris Santos might have refrained from asking about the disability even then, but at least he had a legitimate opening. And once asked, the gentleman couldn’t easily back out of acknowledging his difference and answering the question on TV. But it was handled with a modicum of sense and sensibility.

It’s also worth mentioning that Guy Fieri often introduces contestants on his Food Network game show as a “father of twin girls” or “dad to five children” as often as he refers to mothers and their kids. American Ninja Warriors also announces the reproductive status of its participants, usually in heartwarming featurettes about Dad training with his kids.

I know “grandmother” stories are thought to be more interesting. I know that prom stories make people feel warm and fuzzy. I know that. But they also reduce people to stereotypes – a mom, a person with a disability. Maybe someday these aspects will not be deemed newsworthy, but until then such stories (or at least headlines) will continue to be written.

 

 

Hyphens and Help

So, I was an editor, but I was not the editor. There were editors over me – way too many of them. The company I worked for published several magazines and each one had an editor. I worked on all the publications and for all the editors. Sometimes I felt like I was a bone, with a pack of dogs fighting over me.

Then there was the executive editor, nominally in charge of all the other editors and a really great boss. He was a pleasure to work for.

There were other employees that I had to please as well – art directors, production managers, the Big Boss, and any number of others. It was a balancing act, or more likely, a juggling act. But I thought I had mastered it.

One day, one of the publication editors decided to take a completely new approach to the hyphenation of adjectives. She was a little old lady, well known for sending in manuscripts hand-written on cash register receipts and soap wrappers. Still, she was the founding editor of that particular magazine and she knew the content, the authors, and the industry better than anyone alive.

But there was the hyphenation. It was idiosyncratic and defied all rules of grammar and punctuation that I knew. Nor was it the first time that this editor had gone off on a stylistic tangent. I had memories of the times she had insisted that her odd notions of punctuation and grammar be adhered to.

The first person I saw after the hyphenation edict came down was the production manager. I ranted. I explained exactly how weird her system of hyphenation was. I told him what was wrong with it and why the way we had been doing it was perfectly fine.

“Well, you’ve got to consider that she’s 100 years old,” he said. (She wasn’t quite, but close.) “She’s set in her ways. She’s used to being in charge.” With every word, he expressed how unreasonable it was for me to be upset and how I ought to give in to her notions of proper punctuation. “Let her have her way,” he advised.

I left his desk deeply unsatisfied. Then I went to the executive editor. I went through the same spiel – the magazine editor, the “novel” method of hyphenation, what a hassle it would be, and how ridiculous it would look.

“Tch, tch,” he said.  “Isn’t that awful?” He said it without a trace of irony or condescension. I truly felt that he had heard me and sympathized.

And that was all I really wanted. I didn’t need explanations of why the batty editor had come up with this idea. I didn’t need ways to cope with her insane notions. I didn’t need to learn how to acquiesce gracefully to her punctuation regime.

What I needed was someone to understand.

It’s like that sometimes. There are times when you need advice and there are times when you just need to vent. It is the wise boss – or friend or spouse – who can recognize which time is which.

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise,” and that’s the truth. Sometimes advice is unwanted; sometimes it’s unneeded; sometimes it’s intrusive.

I’ve noticed that men often have an immediate response that when something is complained about, it needs to be fixed, so they offer advice. (This is not always true. The executive boss who listened to my rant was male and he never proffered a single suggestion. But my husband, who has a “fix-it” complex, took time to learn this lesson.)

So did I, when it comes right down to it. I have friends who have lots of problems (and who doesn’t). Many times I tried to give advice to one of them or offer solutions to her problems, but they always met with stubborn explanations of why they couldn’t possibly work. Now I simply offer sympathy and a willing ear and I think we are both more content. She has a sounding board and I don’t sound like a know-it-all.

It’s a tough lesson to learn, especially for those of us raised on Ann Landers and Dear Abby. Sometimes advice is not what’s needed. Sometimes it’s just a little understanding.

 

 

Who’s the Bully Here?

You know why kids bully? Because adults bully. But no one wants to have that conversation.  — Lauryn Mummah McGaster

I saw this pass-along on Facebook the other day and decided that I did want to have the conversation. When we think about bullies, we usually think about kids bullying other kids – classically, stealing their lunch money or more recently, tormenting them for being perceived as gay, or any kind of different, really.

And what do we say when that happens? Kids can be mean. Kids can be cruel. Kids have no respect. In other words, the problem arises in the kids themselves. They shape the victimization of others, presumably out of thin air.

But stop a minute. We know that kids learn what they see adults do. They learn to talk and walk. They learn to swear and belittle. The walking and talking may be hardwired into humans, but the rest is clearly learning by imitation.

But adults aren’t bullies, really. They don’t go around stealing lunch money and certainly not in front of their kids.

You might be surprised, but adult bullying happens a lot at work.  Belittling and humiliation seem to go with business just as much as board meetings and yearly reviews. Not all workplaces are toxic, of course, but almost every one contains a group of gossips or a clique that excludes others just like children do in the cafeteria. They yell at underlings. They sexually harass others. They steal credit for others’ accomplishments and boast about it.

But wait, you say, children seldom if ever come to where their parents work and see them behave this way. How can they be learning bullying from them?

Bullying behavior starts with an attitude, a sentiment that there are winners and losers in life and the winners have the right (or even the duty) to lord it over the losers. Think about how many people were influenced by the “look out for #1” philosophy.

Adults carry these attitudes home with them. Children pick up on them. Think about what adults do and say in front of their kids, even – or maybe especially – when they don’t know the kids are within earshot. They bitch about their neighbors and their bosses. They use words like “bitch” and “bastard” and worse. They talk about their day and how “stupid” some co-worker was or how they “felt like smacking” the customer service representative.

And think about what adults say when their children are being bullied. Often the response is, “If he hits you, hit him right back. Show him you’re the boss.” This perpetuates the “winners and losers” scenario and sometimes leaves the “loser” with a desire to victimize someone even “lesser.”

Worst of all, think about how often adults bully children. There are too many children who are badly abused, hit and kicked and belittled by their parents. These cases sometimes get reported to Children’s Services.

Those are the extreme cases, however. Seldom does a single slap or two get reported. Telling a child that he or she is “no good” or “stupid” or even “a big disappointment” never gets reported at all. Some adults use humiliation, name-calling, and fear, all in the name of discipline and good behavior. Some pit one child against another, praising the “good” child and condemning the other. Some blame and shame ruthlessly.

They may think they are raising obedient children, but they are showing them through actions, words, and even tone of voice what it is to be a bully or a victim and how often bullying succeeds. The essence of bullying is that one person has actual or perceived power over another and uses that power in toxic ways. Think about how much power adults have over children and how seldom they consider how to use that power wisely.

This is certainly not to say that all adults abuse their power or their children. But when you look at children’s behavior, it’s hard not to see a reflection of the environment in which they were raised.

Bullies don’t just happen. They learn.