“I’d like to congratulate you on your parking.”
“You scratched my car,” he said, and gestured to a car which, I then realised, had been parked next to ours, but which was now slightly further away.
“Well, I’m sorry if I did, but I didn-“
“Just be more careful in future, all right?” he said, and then went away pretty quickly (leaving me to wonder if he was telling the entire truth about the alleged damage).
As Mrs Wife pointed out, it hardly seemed worth sticking around to make the point, and I also had doubts about the claim of damage (it had been close, yes, but when I’d got out of the car, my door had only touched that rubber strip thing which most modern cars have along their sides – for just that reason). But it also made me think about something which is relevant to writing, and certainly to life in general: the need to express yourself clearly.
I’d been thrown off by his opening gambit because it just hadn’t made any sense to me, coming as it did from a rather obtuse angle and then suddenly switching to the main point. I mean, I know full well that a great way to throw an argument a bit off track is to shift from discussing the opinions at the heart of it to the method of discussion (“look, you don’t have to shout, all right?” etc), but if you’re trying to make a point to someone in the first place I think it’s probably key to express that pretty clearly.
I think we’ve probably all had experience of disagreements which begin with you being wrong-footed by a bewildering opening – something like “I think you’ve got something to tell me, don’t you?” – which kind of leaves you feeling a few minutes behind as you try to catch up and figure out what you’re supposed to be discussing, or what you’ve allegedly done; I guess that’s partly due to the fact that the person initiating the (ahem) discussion has had more time to mull it over in their mind and try to figure out the sharpest and snarkiest angle of attack – which lets you know that they’re not happy, though not necessarily what they’re not happy about. Which probably isn’t the ideal way to communicate.
In a similar fashion, I often find myself slightly bewildered by slang and text-speak and the like, which is obviously a sign that I’m an old fart, but I think that sometimes it almost seems like the point of the slang is less about getting your point over, and more to be seen to be using zOMG, LOL, dat, 2day, and the like. In this situation, I guess the medium, or at least the method of communication, becomes the message.
You see slang and invented languages used a fair amount of fiction, too; A Clockwork Orange is a pretty good example, though if memory serves that gradually adds more and more of the invented lingo until you suddenly realise, towards the end of the book, that most of it is in Nadsat. Quite a lot of books written in not-quite English (or at least, not quite English as we know it today) are off-putting to the reader, and are often reviewed with comments to the effect that ‘persevering pays off’, though I think there may be an argument to be made that in the opening stages of a book, care should be taken not to alienate the reader; it’s a case of setting out your stall or being on your best behaviour in the early stages of a relationship, to my mind, though of course you don’t want to make your beginning so smooth and easy that it misleads about what’s to follow (whilst I haven’t read beyond the first Harry Potter book, I gather that the series gets darker as time goes on, and deals with far less innocent stuff), or so cautiously tailored to avoid alienating anyone that it ends up appealing to no-one.
I guess the point of all this rumination is that there’s some truth to the idea (which I’m not claiming to have originated) that the quality of your communication is the degree to which it’s understood; if you want to be understood clearly, so that you can proceed (with your story or argument or whatever), I guess the key thing is to rein in any tendency to elaborate or approach from a clever angle, and just to get to the heart of the matter as directly as possible.
I’m reminded of Samuel Johnson’s advice about writing, which I think applies: “Read over your compositions and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”
…Which also goes to explain why so many of my blog posts are published as written. Hmm.