And now, for a real linguistic adventure…

I walk to work.  Yes, I know; I am spoiled, and I wouldn’t be able to do this right now if I was living in the Yukon Territories, unless work was literally just down the street.  It’s a good ‘alleged’ commute because of the freedom that it allows me, as well as the ability to just let it be.  In that time, I can go over what I need to do, forget about all that I’ve done in the day, and create a buffer between my work life and my home life.  I’m not one of those guys who spends much, if any, of his commute time on the phone for any reason.  Hell, I don’t have a smartphone (nor do I particularly want one), which means that the only way that I can use my phone is as a phone.  It’s liberating.

During my commutes, I will see people on their phones, whether that means behind the wheel or along the sidewalk, some texting, others checking their stocks, and others ignoring the hands-free laws that are in place.  Some of the people I see have their earbuds in and are just going at it, doing whatever it is they’re doing, or trying to forget how miserable they are actually having to be on their feet or walk their dogs. I don’t use my iPod on my commute for a variety of reasons, with the biggest being safety.

During these commutes, and most particularly during the past two months, I’ve made an effort to greet people as they pass or as I pass them, which isn’t always as easy as it seems with earbuds, blue-teeth, Jawbones, and all of the other connected devices that allow others to tune out their surroundings.  I think it’s particularly important when I pass someone, especially if they’re about 100 lbs. smaller than me or somewhere near a foot shorter because it’s a lot better than the wordless approach, as if I’m bearing down on someone.  Aside from earlier this summer, before school let in for the year, I primarily see other pedestrians when I’m walking home; my standard greeting on my evening commutes is “good evening.”  Sure, it’s a little wooden, but I think it provides a better image than saying “’sup,” “yo,” or “hey,” particularly if I’ve never seen someone before.

‘Good evening ‘ generates three typical responses.  The first response, and most typical, is no response – nada.  The second response is typically non-verbal, and is usually a cocked eyebrow or a scrunched face, like sucking on a lemon.  The last response, and the rarest, is a verbal response; verbal responses are overwhelmingly positive, even if it’s as simple as ‘hi.’

The process of sifting through these various responses or non-responses makes me wonder what actually goes on in people’s minds when someone says ‘good evening.’  I haven’t recorded any of these responses previously, but I should, if I ever get around to it.  Instead, I play around with an almost Cyrano-like estimation of what they might think.

If they don’t respond, they may be thinking a number of things, or nothing at all.  In Santa Cruz, it’s tough to tell.  They might not have heard me, they might think that I’m a creep, or a little slow, or even talking to myself.  They might mishear what I say, or be caught completely by surprise.

The non-verbal responses are always priceless, because a facial tic can tell you a lot more than a simple response ever could, and it helps me think about context in writing.  They might think of me as some hick from the sticks, and couldn’t you imagine some caricature (or character, if you must) from Mayberry saying “Good eve’nen, Miss Elsie May” or “mighty fine eve’nen?”  Maybe they think I’m a Lugosi nut, trying and failing at that Transylvanian accent “gooed eve neeng,” or a Vincent Price fan, failing at getting that nasally monotone.  Maybe they think I’m some sort of civil engineer, mistakenly calling the sidewalks around Santa Cruz even, which would only work if one of my legs was inches shorter than the other.  Maybe they think I’m one of those guys who comments on others’ wardrobes: “good evening, those lapels are even” or their makeup “good evening, that foundation clearly took care of any and all blemishes you might be hiding” or (to get salacious) about the relative position of a woman’s chest as it moves below a plunging neckline.  Good evening, you walk well in pairs, and not in threes, or ‘good evening, you are spaced out at regular intervals.’ Between smirks and grins, scrunched noses and cocked eyebrows, there’s a lot of room for interpretation, and none of the interpretations that I just listed are very likely.  Without voice and intonation, you never know for sure, just as you never know for sure if a character saying good evening is being polite, sincere, or sarcastic. “Good evening, it’s 95 degrees out here with nearly 100% humidity, I just got mugged, and I think I’ve got hantavirus, but good evening!”

Lastly, there’s the verbalized response, the hies, helloes, parrots of what was just said, or even the response ‘same.’ Nothing else, just ‘same.’  I didn’t even know that the last one was an option!  Without context in terms of visual cues or speech tags in writing, we don’t always know what that person means by hi, hello, or same.  It could be a simple as call and response, but think about how someone can elongate the ‘i’ in hi.  It’s no longer ‘hi, how are you,’ but rather ‘hi? Do I know you?’ or ‘Hi, should I even be greeting you?’  If it’s a short chopped ‘hi,’ then its brevity can also be telling of a person’s physical or mental state; have you ever tried talking after you’ve just put in your fastest sprint?  Have you ever tried greeting someone normally when you just found out that your friend/neighbor/grandma/dog just passed away or you just saw your friend head off on a flight to Camp Pendleton or a deployment? Still, there are others (and this is rare) who read your greeting as an invitation to start a conversation.  It hasn’t happened to me very often, but I will get people saying “I know.  Such great weather!” or something to that effect.  Sure, they’re not necessarily trying to be your best friend, but they’re at least trying to be someone other than that random person on the street.

In literature, we talk about dialogue tags all of the time, and sometimes those dialogue tags provide some of the most ridiculous ways of expressing the idea of someone speaking.  Here’s just a sample, and imagine what these might look like:

“Good evening,” he articulated.
“Good evening,” he blessed.
“Good evening,” he confessed.

“Good evening,” he ejaculated (no, seriously, some authors use this one – at least, according to King and the Internet)

“Good evening,” he shouted.

Of these, maybe articulated is the most likely scenario.  It says the exact same thing as “said,” but usually has the connotation of speech done with some impediment or some difficulty.  “Sammy got punched right in the throat before seeing his date walk up to his door, as he sat to gather his bearings, he articulated the words ‘good evening.’ ”  The others, simply ridiculous, except for perhaps ‘he shouted,’ but that scenario is difficult to imagine without knowing that the character had lost his hearing due to loading and firing heavy artillery.   In each of these cases, whether blessing or confessing or any other alternative, there needs to be a lot of context, especially if you’re using a word that has multiple meanings, some more erotic than others, or multiple connotations.

King argues for the simplicity of the word ‘said,’ avoidance of adverbs, and more useful ways of using dialogue tags, such as addressing all of those verbal cues or those actions that go on while someone is walking their dog, playing squash, or doing the deed.  Of the three options that he lays out, I’d recommend the last.  A man can whisper, a woman can relate something to her peers, but what is the guy doing?  Is he pointing at the parrot that just flew into the willow tree?  Is the woman relating her story as she’s staining the front door?  Well, then what if you have “ ‘Good evening,’ Molly didn’t look up, but simply continued working the stain around the deadbolt. ‘Whatever you’ve got, I’m not buying.’ ”  It is functional, and is a lot more telling of emotional state or the level of investment a person has in a conversation than simply ‘she said,’ ‘she shouted,’ or ‘she related.’

Lastly, the greatest story of any interactions that I’ve had since I’ve actively tried greeting people that I pass on my walk to work comes from a time when I didn’t even offer any greeting.  There’s a group of ladies that do their morning stretches and run every Tuesday.  I’ll pass them as they’re jogging single file, decked out in the type of clothing that you usually do not see outside of a group working the elliptical trainers at your local gym.  One Tuesday, probably in late September at this point, I saw these ladies as they were doing their stretches.  I usually don’t greet people that are actively doing something other than walking or running, so I was willing to leave them be.  The lady that runs the whole outfit looks at me with her hands on her hips ‘hey you, stop distracting the ladies.’ To be fair, she’d seen me pass by before, but even then, you’d think that she was some drill sergeant had it not been for the fact that she was smirking.  Hey, you just did exactly what you accused me of doing.

In just under two weeks, I will embark on another NaNoWriMo.  Our region will be flying without the assistance of a municipal liaison, but we’re going to try and scrap together some gatherings in order to avoid being wholly antisocial creatures.   In a way, I’m hoping for a wet winter, so that I have more excuse to stay inside and make some major headway on my novel; in a way, I’m not, because the time spent away from the keyboard will allow me to reflect on what I’ve already written, and move forward with what I am about to write. I wonder how Mother Nature will push the barometric needle.

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