Just the other day somebody raised the question in print: Did we know that Lady Diana's wedding dress expressed ''the internal contradictions of the determined, but confused, ruling class''?
Well, as a matter of fact, we hadn't known that. If there were any ''internal contradictions,'' we had assumed they belonged to Lady Diana's determined, but confused, dress designer.
Somebody else gave us a second chance: Did we realize that an unbuttoned shirt or uncombed hair signify ''strong emotions: passion, grief, rage, despair''?
Flunked again! All the time we thought we were in the presence of a bit of a slob.
We have to admit it. We're simply not up on ''The Language of Clothes,'' as Alison Lurie titled her new book, parsing out the social statements of fashion.
We don't even know what somebody is ''saying'' to us when that somebody wears sunglasses on a rainy day.
What we do know is that everybody else can explain these things.
As language itself has deteriorated until nobody understands what anybody else means with words, a whole industry has sprung up to translate and interpret our nonverbal signals to one another.
There are experts on ''body language'' who will explain exactly what your boss is ''saying'' to you when he scratches his left ear lobe at salary review time. (Pay no attention to the body language of his smile - that's the decoy.)
There are even experts who will tell you what you are ''saying'' - please don't contradict them - when you buy that red sports car. So what if they've never met you? You're reckless, insecure, and full of adolescent fantasies, and, if they were your boss, they'd scratch both ear lobes.
A couple of experts named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton explain in the current Psychology Today the signals we send by the household possessions we treasure. One does not, it appears, collect useful, beautiful, or precious goods. One collects ''instruments for discovering and articulating personal values.''
This theory - that every household article whispers some message - works pretty well when the object is a grandfather clock or a Louis XIV cPair. But 46 percent of the teen-agers polled indicated to Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton that stereos are their most prized possession. And what - beyond ''Let the good times roll!'' - does that ''say''?
The authors do not abandon their message thesis. With absolutely straight faces they explain that the popularity of the stereo is ''probably bound up with the extraordinary importance music has in the lives of teen-agers.''
Even on those turntables, evidently, one hears only the sound of symbols clashing.
Nothing is simple. Nothing is what it seems. Everything is a metaphor for something else.
Blue jeans, woks, the species of flowers you grow in your garden - it's all a secret code.
Sherlock Holmes was an unobservant clod compared to the clever people deducing who and what we are from the smallest clues of daily living.
A journalist should be the last person to complain about overgeneralizing. That's biting the hand that feeds you - to say nothing of nibbling at the very fingers you're typing with. Still, enough is enough. We've always loved to read Thorstein Veblen on his leisure class, Claude Levi-Strauss on eating habits, and the rest of the best of those who argue that everyday life is a network of culturally expressive rituals. But, for the immediate future, we're going to detour carefully around all books bearing titles like ''You Are What You Eat'' or ''Nancy Reagan's Wardrobe and the Philosophy of the New Right.''
If any expert wants to explain to us what we're ''saying'' by ignoring him thus, let him put the message in body language and just see how he likes it.