I’m sitting at the dining room table with my grandsons. We’re discussing the use of semi-colons. Yikes, why? Well I read a squib in The Week, indicating that young people find it hostile when older people, such as myself, use a period in a text message. I wondered why and asked my two young consultants. My youngest grand said that periods are called for at the end of a thought and are not a signal of hostility; my older agreed with the The Week, feeling that the period expressed a position of stark finality – in the vein of a proclamation from an adult — and possibly too strong for a short informal text. He felt that lack of a period leaves a sense of open-endedness in the exchange. That led to a discussion about other punctuation, including the misunderstood semi-colon. I mined Wikipedia for its guidance on the “;” and we had a lively conversation on punctuation. Who’d a’thought?
Let’s segue to the well-used pronoun “I”. It is used four times in the paragraph above – four times in nine sentences. If we add the use of ‘my’ or ‘myself’, that is nine times in nine sentences. Sounds like it’s all about me, doesn’t it? Sometimes this is called ‘self-reference’ writing. Does it seem to you that self-reference is an over-used trope in both writing and speaking? Perhaps it is a sign of the times that one’s point of view overshadows all forms of communication. When was the last time you heard a reporter simply read the news, versus opine about it? Maybe it’s time to consider a different approach.
A book (Wake Up and Live) written in 1936 explores the idea that self-reference discourse freezes a person in their own opinions and hardens his/her/they/one’s point of view. Sure, describing a personal experience requires the use of personal reference, but perhaps that need not be dominant form of daily communication. The author, Dorothea Brande, suggests avoiding the use of “I” or “my” as an exercise in damping down the subjective or egocentric nature of our thinking. Her thesis is that substituting “we” in our conversation nudges a person to find common ground with others – and may in fact make a person a more interesting communication partner.
Since common ground seems like a diminishing resource these days, it might be worth a try. As a homework assignment, she asks her readers to write an essay or report without using any self-reference – no “I” or “my” or “me”. Sounds like a tough task for us who are members of the “Me-generation”. But there’s help. Check out ‘Avoiding the “I” Trap’ https://www.livewritethrive.com/2015/12/09/writing-mechanics-avoiding-the-i-trap-and-other-irritants/ and ‘3 Methods for Avoiding Personal Pronouns’ https://www.wikihow.com/Avoid-Using-Personal-Language-in-Writing.
But enough about me….
Beyond the _I_
Walther Conkite was the trusted voice of reason. In an article written by Scott Simon for NPR, Simon says:
“Cronkite was a great broadcaster. He spoke to masses, not niches. He grasped that when the news was urgent, people would turn to the broadcaster not only for information, but for sincerity and calm. Millions of people felt better to hear from this man who seemed experienced, but not jaded. He had a visible sense of grief in tragedies, and a little boy’s delight in the glory of space shots. He had gray hair and hound-dog bags under his eyes, but ageless sincerity.
Wal (another Walter) nudges us past what is, to what might be, and in the case of Walter Conkite, what was)
The notion of speaking and writing from “I” is something well practiced, especially in the United States. Emily Landon, the chief infectious disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine writes:
“In all honesty, if we say, ‘This is like the flu, we’ll be all right,’ that attitude is going to harm other people,” Landon told The Post. “And it’s really hard to wrap your head around that, especially in American culture: We’re individualistic and we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and find a way to make it through. And that’s not going to work right now.”
On April 1, 2020 Jane Hyun wrote an article for Fast Company about the impact of culture on how we approach the current pandemic.
“Geert Hofstede, renowned social psychologist, measured the differences in individualism vs. collectivism across nations. The “hugger” approach is a prime example of American individualistic culture. It is expected that each individual act for him or herself, make their own choices, and that individual needs take precedence over the group’s. In South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and China, where the collectivist orientation is prevalent, preferences are given to the rights of the community, team, or organization and standing out is not encouraged; therefore decisions are made that take into account the best interests of the group. Employers (and institutions) take responsibility for their employees and recognition is given to groups and teams as a whole. In times of crisis where we need to move quickly to contain a pandemic, the collectivist orientation perspective has its benefits.”
We are a country that fiercely celebrates independence, so it is not surprising to find the “I” influence in our communications. Earlier in our culture, it was more common to find families living in closer proximity and each member accepting responsibilities that contributed to the greater good. It could also be argued that family elders were looked upon for their life experiences as well as the stories that bound the kinfolk. This interdependence was often necessary for the survival and success of the family. Perhaps this is a seminal time for us to consider a shift in our way of thinking that goes beyond the “I.” Perhaps, in addition to the benefits of independence, there are significant consequences we wish to avoid and the bygone benefits of interdependence are worthy of renewal.
Me, Myself, and I
I am the oldest member of this blog group. Henry won’t be my age for another 2 or 3 months and Wally, well he’s much younger! So, I’ll just say that if wisdom comes with years, I should receive respectful deference for my opinions! I’m glad Wally didn’t talk to his grandchildren about the use of exclamation points cause I use them all the time! Not that everything I say requires emphasis because of it’s value but I’m old and need humoring! I will, however, adhere to the concept: one sentence, one period at the end.
I am not very cerebral. I think with my gut. I often use wrong parts of my body to do different functions than were intended. But I digress! After several readings of both Wally’s and Henry’s pieces I began to understand the concept of I-dentity. I slept on it…I contemplated over late night snacks on it, I mused over how to write without using it. And(never start a sentence with “and” nor end one with a preposition) I questioned what the heck was I going to write about! After several failed attempts I realized my writing was about my personal feelings and experiences. I always value hearing other people’s personal experiences and feelings about those experiences. In a political time when social discourse is mainly “them” vs. “us” I would rather hear about you personally. I am comfortable reading an entire story about someone in the first person. I don’t feel that the decline of western civilization is based on our ending I-dentity in our literary genre.
I commiserate with 3 important people in my life I this time of pandemics, Me, Myself, and I. Therefore, I will write in the first person. For me my ideas, experiences, and struggles are valuable to be shared. If something I write gives someone an idea how to deal with something, I have done a good thing. If you are experiencing something that I may have already gone through, it may make you feel good to know you aren’t alone! I know that has happened to me. If just for a moment something I said put your mind at ease, I have succeeded! If something I said gave you an idea of how to deal with something, I have succeeded. If you chuckled, I have succeeded. It has to do with authenticity. This IS who I am. But now, one must stop and get one’s butt into bed!