I’m certain that clergy, politicians, and news anchors all take the same course in patter. Given how often “our hearts go out to …”, one wonders if they ever stay home. Note that it’s invariably our hearts, first person plural, notwithstanding the speaker might be the only one missing a heart that day. The one thing you don’t want to hear a parishioner shout out is, “Mine doesn’t!” 

Note too that one has to be careful about the right preposition. Hearts go out to, whereas thoughts and prayers go out for. This is because it would be blasphemy to be praying to the family that’s just lost a loved one. Precision of expression matters, as much in patter as in drafting tax law.

Patter is social lubrication, but only if the patteree understands it as such. If I ask you “How do you do?”, I’m waiting for you to ask me the same question. Neither of us is waiting for an answer. Nor, if I say “Pleased to meet you!” am I sharing a report on how I feel about our encounter.

The difficulty arises when you think you’re consoling when in fact you’re just making things worse. For example, do not say to a Holocaust survivor that those who didn’t are in the loving arms of Jesus. You might believe this asinine nonsense, but as with comedy, it helps to know your audience.

And, as with comedy, timing is everything, including for (what might be called) anti-patter. His funeral is not the time to tell your grieving mother that he was sexually molesting you since you were five. Save it for the reading of the will.

And speaking of pedophilia, be especially careful about reciting mantras like, “The state has no right to tell you who you should love.”

As I tell my students, make sure you can stand by your quantifiers. And your modals. Smoking can harm your baby has about as much argumentative force as sneezing might provoke an attack from Mars.

As I say, precision of expression matters, the only exception being love talk. When you assure your aging wife, “Darling, you’re still the most beautiful woman in the world!”, do not stop, think, and then add, “to me”. 

Enough for today. Tomorrow we’ll carry on our discussion of hyperbole. In the meantime, don’t forget there’ll be a surprise exam sometime next week.  

Categories: Critical Thinking

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6 replies

  1. Butter.

    On October 21, 1991, my then-husband sustained a critical brain injury when he hit a 12-point bull moose. My 3 ½ year old son was in the back seat and thankfully was not physically injured. His nightmares lasted for years. I’m not sure if they’ve ever subsided.

    On that same day, my grandmother was hospitalized with congestive heart failure.

    Both were in the same hospital, one in ICU and the other in CCU. My then-husband was in a coma, my grandmother dying. She succumbed three weeks later at the same time he regained some consciousness.

    I remember reading the newspaper write up about the accident. I knew the players, the 26-year-old driver, the 3-year old in the backseat. That’s how it felt, somehow alienated from the surreal world unfolding around us full of tubes and smells and beeps and doctors in green gowns. I clipped the article for posterity. It’s buried somewhere in my cedar chest. Nowhere in the print are the words, “Thoughts and prayers.” But I know some hearts did go out to us.

    The police officer who attended the accident had the unenviable job of breaking the news to me. Anti-police rhetoric overlooks what cops often reliably do, they pick up bodies and broken lives. They’re first responders, and they see first-hand the worst of what humans do to themselves and each other.

    Constable Foster stood at my door, half-dried blood on his hands, while I reeled in shock. He helped me arrange for my neighbors to take care of my youngest child until my parents could pick him up. And he held my hand as we passed the accident site on the way to the hospital. He didn’t flinch under my white-knuckle grip as he said, “Look at me, focus on me. Breath. You have to be strong now.” In the following weeks, he and his colleagues followed up with me and let me know that though they believed my then-husband was speeding he would not be charged. One less thing for me to worry about.

    While in the hospital, my cousin sent a card with the words “Shit Happens”—also buried in my cedar chest. A nurse who quietly watched my volley from room to room cornered me at the coffee station. How are you doing? She asked. Fine, I smiled. With her arms folded across her chest, she said, Bullshit. How are you really doing? At these times, swearwords are so poignant they’re hardly recognized as patter. But ‘shit happens’ and ‘bullshit’ are substitutable for ‘thoughts and prayers’, though each are indexed to particular audiences. I like curses, others like blessings. So, yes Paul, it helps to know your audience. But oftentimes we don’t have a chance to know them, we just reach around for the words we have in our toolboxes and hope they work. The wrong words can really go amiss, but they’re not usually meant to miss. We all understand the faux pas as much as we understand we can’t always recover from making one.

    Anyway, I was in the room when the hospital chaplain sat with my grandmother, not so much for last rites but to see that she was all right. And she was. I taught my family how to live, said my grandmother, now I am teaching them how to die. I don’t know if I will be so brave when my time comes, but her words lent something to my living — just as patter can perform this very function.

    In the aftermath of the accident, my grandmother dead and my then husband brain damaged, I tried to take care of my little family at home. I don’t know whether the loneliness, the poverty, or the loss and grief was the worst to bear. But a few people kept us in their thoughts and prayers. A tiny congregation run by a distant relative mustered up some money from their very modest means to help us make ends meet. And a neighbor stopped by with a bag of wild meat just as I thought we’d go hungry.

    So what has all this pathos to do with the politician and clergyman and the news anchor who utters patter?

    Whether anyone genuinely cared for our welfare, though I’m sure they did, or whether anyone ever thought of us again is here nor there. Even if the patter-er is disingenuous, even if the patter is … pat … sometimes that pat is a little butter, a little salve for a wound. And it usually takes just a little salve to start a wound to healing. The body is left to do the rest, be it an individual or a community.

    Patter isn’t uttered to solve a problem, it’s a dollop spent to salve a problem.

    Yes, thoughts and prayers often are as farts in the wind. But sometimes these words are arrows that point at a problem and move hearts to action. How the hell else does anyone move but for that which stirs the passions? So what would life be without patter? Many times a little worse than it needs to be, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another thought about patter used in political and religious rhetoric:

    One of my favourite quotes from Aristotle’s Rhetoric goes, “If it be objected that one who uses such power of speech [i.e. rhetoric and dialectic] unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge which may be made against all good things except virtue, and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.” (1355b)

    I add to the charge science and technology, e.g. cardiac defibrillators vs the electric chair, vaccines vs guillotines, roller coasters vs catapults, and drones that deliver mail vs those that deliver missiles.

    But I also add patter. As noted, patter serves a positive function in our lives. But, I do acknowledge that our hearts might go out to the wrong person, as so many hearts of note went out to Jim Jones, and ‘thoughts & prayers’ might well have fanned some fervour for the Furher.


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