Friday, April 20, 2018

Telling People What They Are

If you ever have the opportunity to tell someone what they are, take it.

This flies in the face of every standard of polite sociality. It's incredibly taboo to characterize people! Most of us know better than to poke around in the minefield of who people are and what they do. Most people agree that the best approach is for you to be you, and to let them be them, offering only vague statements of support and admiration. "You go, girl" tepidity.

And it's true that you can get into trouble with this stuff. I used to play in a weekly jam session, and a woman who deemed herself a particularly enlightened jazz fan and expert kept trying to squeeze into the elevator with me after we finished. I understood that she had a compulsion to share her criticisms of me with me. I'd manage to dodge her, week after week, by dashing out like a gazelle, or pretending to talk on my phone. Eventually, I resorted to taking the steps (from the 15th floor). I didn't want to hear her assessment; I didn't want her in my brain. We all judge everything constantly, but only a neurotic few of us feel obliged to share that mental narrative.

So don't do that! It's also not particularly helpful to tell a violinist she plays well. She'll politely accept the compliment, but it's not really your assessment to make. You are not an arbiter of quality. If you enjoyed the performance, say so. But "you're good!" sounds more condescending than you realize, and you're not telling them something they don't already know.

So there are indeed several ways you can go wrong. That's why social convention says to steer clear of the quagmire of ego and self-image. However, there are special cases in which you might be foundationally helpful, if you'll offer a brief, modest, uncritical word or two about how a person's work specifically affected you.

I once told a singer (really, just a singing waitress in a hippy cafe at the time, without training or aspirations) that I heard deep honesty in her voice. She flashed on this, and, to cut to the end of the story, she's recorded several albums and has a wide following. She hadn't understood what she was. After I told her, she ran with it (all credit goes to her, of course...not me).

She'd known all along that there was something about her singing, but it was lodged in the intuitive, non-verbal part of her brain. She couldn't access it, couldn't focus it, couldn't figure out where to go or what to do, because she had no idea of who she was or what she did. This simple statement brought it into the light. Knowing what she was, she went forward kicking ass.

When I wrote about "The Enchanted Misty Mountain of Tea and Excrement", about dinner in the mysterious and exotic tea temple being built on the side of a Marin County mountain (the final installment of my multi-thousand mile chow tour), I managed, as I occasionally do, to paint an evocative picture. The subject of that piece, tea expert David Hoffman, told me there was "magic" to the result. And that clicked for me. I'd known there was something I was sometimes able to achieve, but it was lodged in the intuitive, non-verbal part of my brain. By bringing it to light, I understood that I was an aspiring magician. A lot of this Slog is the aftereffect of that revelation.

Interestingly, the piece also told David what he was. A strong flavor was evoked, and I'm not sure - even with his masterful tea expert palate - that David was previously aware of his own flavor. Few of us are. He hadn't realized that he seemed as I described. We need to be told.

A couple of years ago, someone greeted me as I came off stage from a set of music. He told me that, strangely enough, my notes seemed to resonate somewhere in his chest, in his heart. This might have sounded appallingly sappy, but he offered it amiably and off-handedly. It was flattering, but, much more importantly, it was useful. While I enjoy a certain open-heartedness on good days (thanks to meditation and stuff), it's not something others consciously notice. And I hadn't realized that music was a contagious channel; I honestly hadn't a clue. I've written often here about the difficulties I've had trying to recapture my earlier musical skills since Chowhound disrupted everything. But now I had something new; something younger Me had lacked. This was foundationally important to know.

If you ever have the chance to tell someone what they are or what they do, take it.


Just be careful out there. Don't judge. And don't criticize or assess. You're not the arbiter. And don't be all weighty about it, because it's not about you. But do share, tersely, anything highly specific that you happened to have noticed in your experiencing.

Your genius friends might not realize they're geniuses; they may be drowning in self-doubt. Unconventionally beautiful people may not see that in themselves. Those with some super skill or faculty might not have slightest idea. Much talent comes naturally and doesn't feel special to the doer, so people often have no freaking idea who they are and what they're good at (beyond obvious, easily registered things like "plays violin well" or "runs fast").

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