And now, for a brief break from The Shocking Truth. Potentially NSFW below. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
I have not seen the film We Live in Public. But I want to steal its title, because we do.
This morning, in fact, I was sitting outside a coffee shop working on my notes about the Velogical rim dynamo (article forthcoming in the Shocking series). I like this coffee shop because it opens at 6:00 AM, and I can just lock up my bike, walk in, buy a cookie, then sit down at one of the tables outside and read, work on my notebook, or (as this morning) work on note on my phone until it’s time to go to work. I’m on a first-name basis with the staff, and we have nice conversations. If it wasn’t facing a strip mall parking lot, it would be pretty ideal, but you can’t have everything.
This morning, as I was working on my notes, I heard a loud, exasperated voice nearby. A woman was walking along the sidewalk just beyond the coffee shop’s enclosure saying (and I quote without censorship and with approximately the emphasis in the original):
“That’s fucking why I asked you the fucking question, you fucking dumbass!”
Now, let me be clear. She was not saying this to me. Nor was she saying it to anyone in the vicinity, or even to anyone who might be far enough away that her volume was merited. She was wearing a cell phone headset, of course, and speaking to the person on the other end of the line.
This raises two concerns.
Now, when I was a teenager, I tended to talk that way (as did many of my friends). But this woman was manifestly within three years, either side, of thirty. Not a teenager. By the time I was that age, (I’m 56 now) I had learned that this was inappropriate language in public. And I learned that the people I respected most–coworkers, friends, people like that? didn’t use that kind of language in public.
But she, of course, wasn’t in public. She was in the world of her phone call (hint: it’s pretty inappropriate language for private conversations also, but what the hell).
This is the nub of my gist: we live in public. When you’re talking on a cell phone, you’re communicating not just to the other person on the line but to the other people around you. When you work on a notebook, it’s not just you seeing the screen–it’s other people around you.
Observe yourself. What kind of image do you want to project?
The constant use of “fuck” or “fucking” has devalued the the word. It’s likely that the person on the other end of the speaker’s line didn’t blanch, because they were used to it from this source.
Now, I use words like that on occasion. Pretty much everyone does when exasperated enough (even my wonderful spouse, shhhhh). Such words significantly intensify a sentence and have the effect of conveying extreme frustration and anger. They’re a spice, and, like cayenne, they can also be used in comedy because they represent extremity. My favorite example of the moment:
But if you use a spice or a word too much, it loses its flavor. It becomes just another word, much as Woodie Allen complains about the devaluation of the word “love.” (In (I think) Annie Hall, he points out something along the lines of “how I can I say I love you? People love a car, a movie, a floor wax” (Allen then invents “lurve” as a substitute)).
Look, there is a shortage of decent intensifiers in language. This is a particularly powerful one. Use it sparingly. You might surprise people.