this is an abrasion
To speak in metaphors is to tell a bigger story. To speak in metaphors is to open an issue to more complex and nuanced interpretations. Metaphors allow us to map or reconstitute our thoughts within a different context*. Metaphors help us to convey meaning unexpectedly, or strangely, in a way that makes more sense, or seems less absurd, despite not being the thing itself. Metaphors expand our expressions, widen our interpretations, and open up the many possibilities of saying, listening, and receiving.
We talked about this over dinner on Friday night, as we were explaining the costs and benefits of speaking abrasively, and one of us, in an attempt to lessen the abrasiveness of his own speech, resolved to speak in metaphors.
"I'd like to think of myself as sandpaper," he said, "smoothing people out."
"It doesn't work that way," I replied. "Sandpaper is good for wood, but not for skin."
I did think it was a good idea though to speak in metaphors more, or to at least map our lives onto other contexts, to see the world as larger and more interconnected than the small tunnels we tend to burrow into.
To describe speech as “abrasive” is, of course, a metaphor in and of itself. An abrasion, medically speaking, is a wound caused by superficial damage to the skin—less severe than laceration and bleeding. An abrasion occurs when “exposed skin comes into moving contact with a rough surface, causing a grinding or rubbing away of the upper layers of the epidermis” (thanks Wikipedia!). A person’s speech is abrasive (subjectively, at least), when it wounds, not purposefully or intentionally most of the time, but carelessly or accidentally, the way a slip or tumble leads to a scraped-up knee or a cut-up elbow. There are benefits to speaking abrasively: the bluntness, straightforwardness, and honesty. Sometimes verbal abrasion feels as such because of ultra-sensitivity on the receiving end, or insecurity, or fear. We are especially sensitive to those from whom we desire approval. I, for one, do not have as thick a skin as I would like. Rarely do I escape unscathed from my own interpretations of what I perceive to be insulting words and silences. Yes, silence is abrasive too.
The costs of abrasion are usually temporary but not absent: hurt feelings and potential miscommunication, as well as the image of the perpetrator as insensitive, mean, and careless.
Recently, I was called abrasive—but it was meant as a compliment—by a co-worker, who, after hearing that I was leaving the company, came by my office to chat.
“Natalie,” he said. “Do you have a minute?”
“No,” I said, shortly, pre-emptively demonstrating the characteristic he was about to name.
“This will only take thirty seconds, I swear,” he said.
“Sure…” I conceded.
He began heaping praise on me—much undeserved praise that I was shocked to hear—he said I was talented, an extraordinary writer, and a pleasure to work with. I said nothing.
“You’re abrasive and aggressive, and it’s SO great!” he said, smiling, his toothpaste-commercial-qualified teeth gleaming as he spoke.
“Thanks?” I said, laughing at the absurdity of his statement. “That means so much…”
After I absorbed the surprise of the mini-encomium, I was amused that “abrasive” had been intended as a compliment—a word, that in my work context, would not be entirely inaccurate, though more accurate would have been “aloof,” “reticent,” and “withdrawn.” My persona at my previous job, I have realized, was an exaggeration of certain tendencies I have when I'm uncomfortable or stressed out, but mostly it was a different persona altogether, a contrast from the talkative and outgoing version of myself that I easily embodied outside of the office. Perhaps in my own guardedness and fear that I would become more emotionally invested in my work (and people at work) than I wanted to be, I protected myself with the quills of an abrasive demeanor and abrasive speech. Perhaps.
Abrasion does not have the same consequence as a clear invective, and yet even its slight potential to injure has made me think more about the air I give off, about empathy in communication, about gentleness and patience and holding my tongue, even in seemingly trivial interactions. I think about being more poised, careful, and thoughtful about the words I use—which I can’t just fling around, expecting they will bounce off people—and how words are absorbed by the dermis, leaving little scars here and there, and how the worst of them drip into nightmares like a continuous pour of lye on skin and haunt, like trapped echoes, for years. We have an extraordinary ability to let people’s wounding words become fossils inside of us, and the fibers of those words end up leaking out of us onto other people. In a way we are all delusional sufferers of Morgellons disease.
I’ve learned lately that how you view yourself is often incongruous with how others view you.
Daily we will fall short of who we think we are or are supposed to be.
A friend recently told me that her friend, who I've met several times, thinks I hate her, which was a surprising fact, but not a first-time occurrence. Don't we all have the sneaking suspicion that someone hates us, for no reason at all, except that he or she has not been particularly warm and inviting?
I’ve never been cloyingly sweet, or particularly peppy. Usually clad in motorcycle boots and garb that is frequently mistaken for funeral wear. I don’t know how to fake it—fake sweetness, peppiness, excitement—which is perhaps a precursor to abrasiveness, this inability to swaddle words and thoughts in a blanket of cotton candy.
I don’t think abrasiveness and kindness are mutually exclusive. In fact, some of the most abrasive people I know have also turned out to be the kindest, even though they may have initially instilled fear in me, like one of my professors in college, who was frequently barking at students to get out of his classroom, or to not take his classes, or to stop believing in their liberal ideologies (yes, a professor like this does exist at Harvard). It turned out he had merely a gruff exterior and a soft heart, and a love for magic, boats, and the sea. We are usually intimidated by these people because we believe, by their lack of affection—or coddling, call it what you want—that they reject us. We need their verbal affirmations as proof of good feelings.
In fact, empty verbal affirmation, flattery (“excessive and insincere praise, especially that given to further one’s own interests) fits within the paradigm of manners that is generally acceptable, if not lauded. The genteel society of the Victorian Era demanded from its members a certain polite and refined dress, speech, and decorum, in which abrasive and coarse language would have been unacceptable and appalling. And while there is a certain nostalgic delicacy and sweetness to this way of being—it allowed people to maintain civil relationships, at least outwardly—, flattery was, I’m sure, a convenient way to stay within the bounds of propriety without actually conveying any substance, meaning, or truth.
Abrasiveness is not an accurate reflection of the heart. The connoisseur of propriety who knows how to sweet-talk, brown-nose, and manipulate is easily mistaken for well-behaved. A lack of kindness is a much deeper well to fill, a kind of courage and out-of-body sacrifice that is learned and practiced, but never fully perfected. We must not mistake a furrowed brow, a snarly remark, or a bitingly honest observation for pure meanness.
In her book of essays, The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison writes, “empathy might be, at root, a barter, a bid for others’ affection." She suggests that sometimes we “care in order to be cared for,” that we “care because we are porous.” We can empathize with someone’s pain, because in doing so, we can call ourselves bigger-hearted, and they, in seeing our empathy, consequently love us back, or love us more. But can we extend this same empathy to those whose meanness we despise? To those who do the evil we think we ourselves are not capable of? To those who do not communicate the same way we do? Or do not know how to communicate altogether? To know that we have the capacity—and do—hurt others as much as we are hurt is a different type of empathy altogether.
“We should empathize from courage,” writes Jamison, instead of fear—and courage sometimes means that in lieu of flinching, or focusing on the pain that (we feel) is inflicted on us, we muster the strength in ourselves (or ask God for the strength) to give grace, to not let an abrasion be an abrasion. We do not have to disavow pain, but we strive not to be at the mercy of pain's shackles. We are daily humbled by a language that we still know not how to wield. Our words break between us over and over again.
*Metaphor is defined by Zoltan Kovecses in his book Metaphor: A Practical Introduction as "understanding one conceptual domain in terms of another conceptual domain." It is "a set of systematic correspondences between the source and the target." George Lakoff, in the book Metaphors We Live By, writes, "Metaphor is one of the most basic mechanisms we have for understanding our experience [...] We found that metaphor could create new meaning, create similarities, and thereby define a new reality."