If you encounter the public language of America as an outsider, or somebody whose formative years were elsewhere (mine were in Sweden) you’re struck by a quality that is very difficult to identify.
I think about it almost all the time. Just now I think I got it. I want to write it down, in case I’m right.
It’s not just that feelings don’t permeate the language, it’s that feeling-less language is upheld with a near nationalist determination. We love, and abuse, sterile phrases like, “It is what it is,” “You got to move on,” and so forth.
The things people say when they don’t want to say what it really true, relevant, or reflective, have formed a kind of calcified second language, on top of the true, living language that moves, reveals and connects.
What do I expect, you may ask?
Do I expect American public figures to sound like Liv Ullman?
I don’t know.
All I know is that I just wait, and wait, and wait, to hear something human sounding. On television, on the bus, or in my own conversations.
The language is rational, above all else. Pain-avoidant and joy-avoidant.
Lawns are mowed almost out of what seems to be a fear of what might emerge from the grass if we didn’t show it who’s boss.
When somebody cries, without exception, they say, “I’m sorry.”
And we say, “Are you ok?”
Not, “Do you want to talk about it?”
Bengt, the now 93 year old father of a close friend in Sweden–when I sat on their small boat in the Baltic Sea after we’d scattered my mother’s ashes–he did something lovely.
He said nothing suggestive that I should push my tears back where they came from, that I should bring things back to an emotion-less state as fast as possible.
He just sat there with me. And then he wiped a tear from my cheek.