Commentary

How to get a word in edgewise

April 7, 2014 

It’s not written in the marriage contract, but perhaps it should be: that a spouse or partner will listen patiently and cheerfully when, in the presence of friends, one or the other trots out a story or anecdote that seems older than time itself.

And the law itself should protect us from twice-told tales from friends and relatives.

I have a soft, nonaggressive voice that is easily overridden by more forceful conversations from others.

Because of that, my gems of wisdom or amusing anecdotes often die unheard on the desert air of coffee klatches or other group gatherings.

I’ve sometimes tried to bid for talking time by raising my hand. A smart-aleck friend once responded with, “A.C., it’s down those three steps and to the left. Don’t forget to flush.”

There have been times when, desperate to wedge a few words in, I’ve even pounded on the table with my fist to get attention. This tactic usually leads to sudden silence and hurt looks on the faces of my companions. By then, I have forgotten what I had wanted to say.

Table pounding, of course, constitutes bad manners, to say the least. However, we are only human.

Speaking of bad manners, at a Snow reunion I was chatting with a favorite cousin when her husband joined us. He immediately dominated the conversation.

When he walked away, his wife said ruefully, “It’s not that Albert doesn’t have manners. In fact, he has more manners than most people because he hasn’t used any. I have no idea why he’s saving them. He’s almost 65 years old.”

The Rev. Bob Mullinax, longtime Raleigh friend, has conceived a clever way to handle twice-told stories:

“What I’ve done with some of my good friends at the YMCA and elsewhere is to ceremoniously bestow upon them the grand privilege of holding up two (V) fingers anytime they catch me telling them the same story twice.

“More than a few have taken me up on it, after which we enjoy a good laugh.”

Great idea. And it works both ways, for oneself as well as for others at the table.

On the other hand, former Appeals Court Judge Sid Eagles is not abashed about re-telling a good story. When he does, he announces right off, “Now if I’ve told you this story before, don’t stop me. It’s a good story and I enjoy telling it.”

As the youngest in a large family, I never really had a chance to participate in family conversations. My soft voice didn’t enhance my efforts.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson was in office, he once called on an aide to say grace at a White House luncheon.

The aide, whose name I’ve long forgotten, was gruffly interrupted by the often abrasive Johnson, who called out irritably, “Speak up, Woodrow. I can’t hear a damn word you’re saying!”

The aide responded respectfully, “I’m sorry, Mr. President, but I wasn’t addressing you.”

It’s not that my friends are rude. It’s that my vocal volume is lacking.

Once as we were leaving a restaurant, I heard one of my friends just ahead of me say to another in our group, “Anything wrong with A.C. tonight? He hardly said a word all evening.”

He had no idea how hard I had struggled to be heard.

President Teddy Roosevelt used the familiar expression, “Speak softly and carry a big stick!” to describe his foreign policy back in the early 1900s. From time to time I’ve thought about carrying a stick anywhere I go, since speaking softly has been a lifetime handicap when I’m competing for talk time.

One of my best friends and I have worked out a satisfying procedure when we meet for coffee. Sometimes, we each bring a written agenda and take turns discussing local and world issues that cry out for our opinions and solutions.

If you choose to follow suit, don’t overload your list with religion, politics and sports. All three are usually nonnegotiable.

Anyway, best wishes for many enjoyable bull sessions.

Snow: 919-836-5636 or asnow@newsobserver.com

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