Communication and Emotional Expression (Part 2): Other People’s WordsShare
The world often has a very narrow view of what effective communication looks like. There are, in fact, many ways people can communicate. One method involves conveying thoughts and feelings, through other peoples' words.
"Don't you have any ideas of your own!" an exasperated person once said to my father — an admonishment that seemed particularly unfair. The fact was, my father had plenty of thoughts and ideas, but the challenge was how he communicated them. My father had a way of sharing his own thoughts via other peoples' words.
My father's special interest was music, and to a lesser extent, movies. A walking encyclopedia of music, he had memorized the contents of the top catalogs in the industry. It was his mission to know every artist, every recording, and every song - no matter how obscure.
He was the one who, in any gathering, could answer when someone popped out some random, bizarre question. Some guy would slouch up to a group and say something like, "Hey, who does that Taco Bell song?"
"Taco Bell song?" someone would ask...then there'd be a long pause, as members of the group would look at each other in bewilderment. "Yeah," would come the response, "y'know, that classical thing...I heard it at my sister's wedding."
Now the wheels would be turning in my father's head. Taco bell song? Wedding? Hmmm...then the epiphany would come. "Oh! Do you mean Pachelbel's Canon in D?! "
"Yeah...yeah, man. That's it!" the guy would say, waving his hand, "Who does that?"
"Pachelbel, Johan Pachelbel — that's the composer's name," my father would say, leaving the man to respond, "Oh, yeah, yeah, right, man. Thanks...." Then the conversation would move to individual recordings, when they came out, which were the best, etc., etc., until someone changed the subject.
But his particular genius was in the area of lyrics — he could match a song to almost any situation. He spent so much of his time and energy immersed in the world of music and lyrics, that those lyrics became deeply entwined within his thinking and speech to an extent that I think even he didn't recognize.
It affected everything - even his choice for my name. When I was born, he wanted to name me Michelle - a name my mother vetoed because she connected it with a former girlfriend. Years later, when I asked him about it, he denied this. What was the inspiration?
This particular tendency came to fore most frequently when he talked about emotion. He seemed to find it easier to communicate what he was feeling by using other people's words rather than his own - this was where peoples' frustrations came in.
Other people came to view this as copycatting — assuming that since he didn't say what he was thinking "in his own words," that they weren't his thoughts and feelings at all, but rather that he was "copying" someone else's. But it was chicken and the egg kind of argument — which came to mind first? His feeling? Or the song lyrics he used to describe them?
Personally, I believe it was the feeling. In my life, I've found that extremes of emotion tend to cause me particular problems with communication. I know what I want to say, but the "signal" between my brain and my mouth seems to get jumbled, leading to a choppy, stuttering style of speech, and, in extreme circumstances, the complete inability to speak.
Since my father shared a great many of my verbal eccentricities, I suspect the same thing happened to him also...but he found a loophole. He found that, much as singing is often easier for the stutterer than straight speech, reading, repeating, or reciting familiar, well known words was easier to manage than overcoming the "static" that interfered with the conversion his own thoughts to speech.
Thus, most emotional conversations with my father began with "Well...you know...it's like in that song..." This worked — because his encyclopedic knowledge gave him the lyrical vocabulary to carry it off. He very rarely encountered a situation in which he could not find the perfect song snippet to match his state of mind.
Even when words failed him, music remained an important clue to his emotional state. If his frustration with the social world was running high, and he felt isolated and alone, he might not say anything. But from another room, you'd hear the soft strains of one of his favorite songs — Simon and Garfunkel's "I Am A Rock:"
"I've built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island."
When I chose to move to another state, he came to help me load up. He didn't say a word — but I knew precisely how he was feeling. He didn't need to say it...I heard it in the song blaring on the radio - The Grateful Dead's "Touch of Grey:"
"I will get by
I will get by
I will get by
I will survive"
In the end, his communication style was catching — I'd find myself relating in the same way. We could have entire conversations, which constituted, almost completely, of borrowed song lyrics and movie quotes. It became a shared language.
While some might have viewed this type of communication as "less than" — I see a certain beauty in it. I see in his communication a verbal mosaic of words — "shards" of poetry broken apart, and pieced back together in new, beautiful and unexpected ways. Others may question, why he didn't just draw, or sculpt something from scratch - but to me, there's a certain depth in the fusion of different colors, textures, and shapes that you wouldn't get in any another way.
In addition to this beauty — I find that there are other advantages to my father's way of communicating. He and I have been estranged now, for many years — and I don't see, at least not now, a way that we can carry on a relationship. However, if I miss him (and sometimes I do), all I have to do is to turn on the radio or pop in a CD, and it's as if he visits me...through other people's words.
Read Part 1 of this series here.