Our mothers and fathers and teachers and the rest of the villagers who raised us tell us to think before we speak. I interpret this as, “Make sure what you’re saying is a good idea,” and, “Be careful how you say things.”
This last phrase might become my epitaph. It’s true: I’m obsessed with word choice.
My biggest fear is neither dying nor being alone (although that one comes close). Instead, I am afraid of being misinterpreted and then, as a result, dying or being alone.
I face this fear nearly every day, as I try to be conscious of my choices. I’m misunderstood often. I’m human. It happens. But being aware of the way we say, not just what we say, can make a significant difference.
To show you what I mean, I’ll provide an example that’s been on my mind. I never noticed it until I lived in Spain. In English, it’s common to say something like, “Can I talk to Bob, please?” Or, “Oh yeah, Carol’s doing just great. I talked to her the other day.” We say “talk to” quite a bit.
I realized this when, in Spanish class, I accidentally said “hablar A” instead of “hablar CON.” I was corrected and sufficiently embarrassed. (In Spanish, hablar means to speak or to talk. A is a preposition that functions like the English “to,” just as con functions as the English “with.”)
In Spanish, there is only “talk with” and “speak with.” There are no alternatives. We can use these phrases in English, too, and it’s still right, but Spanish doesn’t even give people the option. My mistake got me thinking about what the English—talk to and talk with—implies.
In America, people talk to each other. Often. What I mean, of course, is that we talk at each other. We send out sound waves from our mouths so that they may hit other people’s faces. It works. I talk to people and they talk back. We bear our flags and send our words like messengers.
But talking to doesn’t really shout “conversation.” I talk to my dog, Wendell, all the time. But he doesn’t talk back. I sometimes talk to my brother, Paul, as if he were Wendell, and it’s the same story. Talking to is like an update on Facebook or Twitter: the sending of words without much thought.
On the flip side, talking with implies warmth, even intimacy. I’d like to think that Americans talk with each other as much as they talk at. I talked with my friend Caroline the night I decided to drop a class. I talked with my mallorquina friends about how we were going to keep in touch after I left Palma de Mallorca. I talked with my cousin about her recent engagement and her eagerness to start the wedding planning process. An intimate heart-bearing dialogue might not always be appropriate, but listening and sharing should be.
So what? So, maybe we should start acknowledging the difference between Twitter and human connection. I know, I know: Twitter is great and it has its function. Never has breaking global news been so accessible. But being re-tweeted shouldn’t be a priority over having a real conversation with my brother. Culture influences language, and language influences culture, so maybe we can approach this from both ends. Changing the way we speak might just help us better communicate, and changing the way we communicate might just change the way we think.
Erin McMahon grew up in Rockvale, Tennessee and attends the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, where she studies Spanish, Theatre, and French. In June 2010, she studied under Steve Vineberg and Ed Isser in Holy Cross’ British Theatre in Perspective immersion in London, UK. From September 2011 to June 2012, she attended the Universitat de les Illes Balears in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. She enjoys performing, practicing yoga, and praying to God that she graduates next spring. Upon graduation, she plans to study Spanish Golden Age Literature.