Looking Up: It’s Okay to SAY It

Opinion by Nina M. Chung
Jan. 12, 2011, 12:02 a.m.

Looking Up: It’s Okay to SAY It“Hey, darlin’—are you here yet? …Oh, don’t tell me you’re at Y2E2. I’m at the other one.”

“[laughs] I never even thought of that one—I’ve hardly gone there.”

“Okay, let’s meet in the middle.”

“Alumni Café?”

“Oh, yeah! …But if you’re going to come this way to Alumni Café anyway, why not just come over here?”

“Huh? That’s so much farther away!”

“What are you talking about? Green Library is totally between you and Alumni Café.”

“OH—I thought you were at the Coupa on University Avenue!!!”


And then we burst out laughing. We had missed each other’s point too many times in this one-minute phone conversation. And this was with a fabulous girl I’m crazy lucky to know, whose outlook on life is pretty much parallel to mine; we just know each other.

But think of all of our encounters with people who see the world under a different shade of light, whose step veers way off our own, whose language is technically the same as ours but operates under totally different rules. We have to live in such close proximity with individuals who are universes away, and no communication technology will ever cut those distances short. I’ve only lived about 20 years, with no recollection of pagers or telegrams or horse-transported mail, but I dare say that one thing human history has not seen develop is our ability to truly communicate with each other. For example, this morning I met my cousin in Hong Kong for a Skype date, and I text my dad in Korea all the time, but I still have quibbles with my mom about what time she said dinner was going to be. Simple miscommunication is one of our lives’ most humbling realities, a thing of beauty in itself. But it means that a lot of our relationships (the ones we care enough about) require much more effort than we typically give.

It’s as if everyone is on an island, connected to each other by fantastically designed, high-tech bridges—totally sustainable and everything. But, somehow, we forget we have to walk the entire length to reach the other person. Or we completely underestimate it and walk only halfway. That’s my visual equivalent of the ways we abbreviate ourselves. For the sake of speed and efficiency, we cut the heads and tails of our stories so the summary can fit into high-speed virtual packages. Recall the many times you had to retell something from the very beginning because the person across from you was clueless as to your context. Our love affair with efficiency has led to its over-application, to the point where acronym-version conversations end too easily in misunderstandings later. And fixing misunderstandings later is usually, ironically, a huge, inefficient mess.

But the heart of the matter? We don’t even always say what we really want to say. We substitute simple statements with hints and signs and codes wrapped in fake politeness or pretend nonchalance. We get so ingeniously strategic in our efforts to avoid a face. How do silent treatments on Facebook even work? And have you ever noticed how you can read someone else’s text message aloud in 5000 ways—depending on if you like them or not? The indirect methods are often so pointless. We’re not just all born different; we grow up accumulating exponentially more levels of experiences that leave every single one of us with a unique set of rules on how to interpret people. I’m stating an obvious here. Nevertheless, we forget to take care of how we send our “messages,” which can be received in completely manipulated ways. “Don’t they get it?” we ask. Maybe the question should be, “Did I actually tell them?” Because we can’t keep taking for granted that everyone can simply read our minds. (Thankfully.)

There’s a huge difference between subtlety and being frustratingly uncommunicative. Subtlety understands the other person enough to know how he or she will receive you. The other fears the truth in its plainest form, sans the superfluous make-up and jewelry. This is why I always thanked the guy who was brave enough to admit what he felt about me. This is why I quite easily cut the dating game once it becomes an enigmatic mystery one. This is why I like to clearly address friendship ambiguities once I’ve figured out where they actually are. (Well, I really try.)

Straight-up confrontation is typically equated with rudeness—but doesn’t that depend on the content? Open, honest communication is one of the most amazing, conventional, old-school ways to respect someone. I don’t think a truth like that can ever go out of style.

Have something to say? Thankfully, Nina still uses e-mail, at [email protected]. Don’t worry, she’ll try not to misinterpret you.

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