I recently finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Wives and Daughters. It’s a wise and winsome story, and I look forward to reviewing it on the podcast in a few weeks.
Thought-provoking themes and characters abound in the novel, but today I just want to share a small, unobtrusive insight buried in the middle of the book. The main character, Molly Gibson, lives at home with her father, stepmother, and stepsister, and in the excerpt quoted below, the family has recently attended a local ball. Molly hopes to talk over the events of the ball and enjoy them again in retrospect, but her stepsister avoids the topic, and Molly is left to discuss it only with her stepmother.
That’s when Elizabeth Gaskell makes this clear-sighted comment about Molly’s stepmother and the way she communicates:
“…her words were always like ready-made clothes, and never fitted individual thoughts. Anybody might have used them, and, with a change of proper names, they might have served to describe any ball. She repeatedly used the same language in speaking about it, till Molly knew the sentences and their sequence even to irritation.” (Ch. 28)
These words sank in as I read them, and I couldn’t shake them off. Maybe they spoke more deeply to me since I’m a writer and care a great deal about words, but Elizabeth Gaskell’s observation applies to all of us, not just writers. I don’t think I’m generalizing to say that all of us, in certain situations, slip into habitual ways of speaking. We tend to abide by both universal and personal codes for conversation: the universal routine of “Good morning, how are you?” “Fine, thanks, and you?” which we usually say without thinking, as well as specific words or phrases we individually attach to and thoughtlessly get into the habit of using.
Some of this is normal and not necessarily problematic. I suppose it’s just the nature of language that causes societies and individuals to fall into patterns of speech over time, and while this might be good to resist sometimes, I think it’s also an inevitable aspect of communication.
And yet, communication is useless unless we strive to say what we really mean. And it seems to me that the problem with speech habits comes in when we lose the connection between word and thought. I’d argue that the traditional phrase “How are you doing?” is still a great question to ask people, but I want to really mean it when I say it. And when I respond, I don’t want to reply thoughtlessly, but speak truth.
The catch is this: it’s frighteningly easy to detach words from thoughts—even when we believe we’re speaking truthfully and accurately. English is a wonderfully diverse, distinct language, but the simple fact is that it takes effort to say exactly what we mean. It’s much easier to call an event “fun” than to think it through and specify that it was energizing, or relaxing, or comical, or a dozen other varieties of “fun.”
This is what Elizabeth Gaskell points out about Molly’s stepmother. She uses phrases that “might have served to describe any ball.” Her words are “like ready-made clothes” that don’t fit individual thoughts. It’s too much work to tailor your communication to your thinking.
But this is the scariest part: “ready-made” words often indicate not just a disconnect from individual thoughts, but the absence of individual thoughts. It’s true that sometimes we communicate vaguely, not because we’re not thinking deeply, but just because we can’t catch hold of the right words to communicate what we think. But at other times, we don’t communicate clearly because we don’t think clearly.
In my mind, this is one reason why writing is such a crucial discipline in education. We can’t choose distinct words unless we think distinct thoughts, and writing forces us to slow down to select our words with care. And just as vague communication allows for vague thinking, precise communication nurtures precise thinking.
So while it may seem unnecessary to articulate whether something is “energizing” versus “relaxing,” if we don’t try to break the habit of using ready-made words, we may never learn how to think distinct thoughts. And there will be situations when vague thoughts are not nearly enough. Molly’s stepmother may discuss a ball without tailoring her words to individual thoughts and do no harm except irritate her stepdaughter. But when I am asked what I think of something more important—a person, a principle, my faith—will I be prepared to communicate clear thoughts with clear words?