Verbal Energy

Maybe we should stop 'Look!' and 'Listen!'

Those who routinely start their sentences with blunt commands are likely to come across as peremptory.

Back-to-school essay question: Compare and contrast the communication styles of US presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. Give examples.

I'm not sure I would ever have put these two together like this, but a number of people would, it appears from a scan across the politosphere.

Actually, one analysis I read not long ago argued that you could do it in two syllables: "Look" and "Well."

If that's a bit too compressed, let's expand it by saying that "Look" is a characteristic first syllable out of the mouth of the current president, as in, for example, a recent CBS interview in which he hypothetically quoted himself, acknowledging the pain of the unemployed: "[F]or me to argue, 'Look, we've actually made the right decisions. Things would have been much worse had we not made those decisions' – that's not that satisfying if you don't have a job right now."

By contrast, Reagan's frequent opening note, "Well ...," was a kind of verbal softener. It helped him seem genial even when he was being forceful. And it's so associated with him that a collection of his political quips is titled "Well ... There You Go Again!"

The two-presidents-in-two-syllables analysis had just made it to the top of my reading pile when I got a note from a friend in which he grumbled en passant about, among other bad habits of ordinary conversation, "the somewhat condescending 'Look!...' " He went on, "I always find that 'Look' to connote, 'You don't seem to know. Let me tell you the way it really is.' "

He's got a point. It's probably not the most appealing locution in English. Those who overuse it are apt to come across as peremptory.

The same thing might be said of "Listen!" The extra syllable makes it a bit softer, and it lacks the hard "k" that makes "Look!" the sonic equivalent of a quick punch. But perhaps even more than "Look," the command to "listen" puts the speaker into the position of parent, teacher, commander, or other authority figure, and the listener into the role of obedient – or not – subordinate.

On the other hand, "Listen!" is sometimes represented in dialogue as "Lissen," as if dropping the "t" were something only lowlifes did. Is there some subliminal hint there of the hissing of the serpent in the Garden of Eden?

I may be overthinking this. Other languages have idioms whereby the speaker invites the listener to "see" or "have a look at" something without sounding quite so authoritarian. And consider "lo, and behold!" Once literary, that idiom is now humorous or ironic, but it means the same thing as "Look!"

Look and listen – and lo as well – in this context are words that grammarians classify as interjections – words that don't do any of the heavy lifting of a sentence but are, etymologically, just "thrown in between" our other bits of utterance. But interjections are the verbal fireworks of our language.

There's another way to think about this. In conversation with each other we seek to put into words what's going on in our heads. To share a big idea, or to bridge a big misunderstanding, we sometimes have to build a whole world for our interlocutor. We try to share a whole vision of what a given situation really looks like, really is. And we do that, paradoxically, with a slender ribbon of speech out of our mouths.

"Look!" may be nothing more than a plea to a listener to try to see that vision.

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