Thoughts and Words

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I reviewed Adam Smyer’s You Can Keep That To Yourself yesterday. He make’s this interesting observation at the beginning of the book:

I will tell you what not to say, but I will not tell you what not to think. Think whatever you like.

Let’s review.

THOUGHTS are the things on the In side of your head. They are invisible. Your thoughts are yours. No one else’s. No one else wants them.

WORDS are the things that exit your hole to the Out side of your head, where we are. They are a lot like thoughts, except that we can hear them. We don’t want most of those, either. You can keep them.

Adam Smyer, You Can Keep That to Yourself, p. 9.

Smyer’s book is about the insensitive things “well-intentioned people of pallor” say to Black people. But there is a principle here that is worth considering in all situations: you don’t have to say everything you think.

This is a principle I’ve called to mind again and again during the past election season. Whenever I’ve failed to observe it online, I’ve ended up responding to those who disagreed with me, wasting too much of my one precious life. How liberating it was to realize that I didn’t have to respond to an objectionable comment. I could respond in my head and hit mental “send” and let it go.

There are so many times when I’ve wished I could stuff words back into thought-land. Unfortunately, you can’t. All you can do is clean up the mess.

I personally wonder why people feel compelled to disagree on matters of taste. If you don’t like butter pecan ice cream, you really don’t need to rain on my parade. Why not just share your own favorite, like cookies ‘n cream–or whatever!

I like how the New Living Translation renders Proverbs 10:19:

Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut.

There are times, though, when we do need to speak. It’s one thing to think about what not to say. What tests may we apply to discern what we should say? There is a test developed by Herbert J. Taylor and introduced to the Chicago Rotary Club that was eventually adopted by the Rotary International and called the Four Way Test for these four questions:

1. Is it the TRUTH?
2. Is it FAIR to all Concerned?
3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Imagine applying this to work conversations, our marriages, and everything we post online. Imagine if we could get all our politicians to pledge to this simple test and keep everything that doesn’t meet the test in thought land.

I suspect using this test, if nothing else, will incline us to say less. Sometimes, by pausing and using this test I find my initial thought was wrong and not what I really think, or would say. If I am not sure in some situations how to answer, it can help. After all, should I say what I’m thinking when I’m not sure of the answers to the questions of the Four Way Test? Probably not.

Just remember. You don’t have to say everything you think. Less is more.

Review: You Can Keep That to Yourself

You Can Keep That To Yourself, Adam Smyer. New York: Akashic Books, 2020

Summary: A humorous and pointed list of “things not to say” to Black friends or colleagues.

“HELLO, WELL-INTENTIONED PERSON OF PALLOR!

“It’s Daquan–the black coworker you are referring to when you claim to have black friends.

“You are reading this book because you want to know what not to say. They get mad at you when you say the wrong thing. But no one will tell you, up front, what not to say. Well, I will tell you. Because I am your friend. Your real black friend.” (p. 7)

Adam “Daquan” Smyer more than delivers on that promise in a book that made me alternately laugh and cringe (“I’ve said that–ouch!”). The book is literally a list of things not to say to Black people, organized alphabetically. Here is the first:

Ally

Well-intentioned people of pallor went seamlessly from not seeing color to being allies. Being part of the problem was never considered. And, really, “ally” was fine for a while. It was aspirational. But now “I’m an ally” is the “Don’t hurt me” of our time. Don’t nobody want you, Karen. You can keep that to yourself.

Smyer, p. 10-11

Smyer can be blunt and use vulgarities. But that has become commonplace both in publications and public discussions. Think for example of the reference of one president to “sh*thole countries.” I’ve heard most of what Smyer says even in informal Christian circles. I’m not keen on this trend but I wouldn’t let the language distract from the message of the book, which it actually underscores, of the simmering frustration engendered by the repeated insensitivities of “people of pallor” And if you think this is just being “over-sensitive,” that’s in the list as well:

Over-sensitive

Y’all snap after you have been unpopular for two weeks. I’ve been black my whole life. In America. And I’m at least functional. I’m oversensitive? The record reflects otherwise.

Smyer, p. 67.

As for one of my cringes?

Yowza!

It’s weird–one minute we are having a normal conversation, and the next you are blurting out a minstrel show catchphrase. Verbal blackface.

So inappropriate! But mostly just weird. A thought: you could not.

Smyer, p. 111.

I did not know that. Now I do. I will not.

So much comes down to being considerate–to trying to imagine being in another’s place. When it comes to being Black, I cannot. But I can listen to how I am being heard by a Black person. That’s what Smyer does for us here. He says what is often only thought when we say what we people of pallor should keep to ourselves.

So what do we talk about?

There is so much that you can say. If we are at work, you can talk about work. (It really would be great if you could only talk to us about work, but we understand that you don’t know where you are.) You can talk about weather and/or sports. You can talk about your favorite shows. You can even talk about current events if your family raised you properly.

Smyer, 121.

This is a quick read that might be worth a periodic review. Old habits die hard. And it is probably worthwhile learning that we don’t have to say all we think or want to say. The truth is, black people have been doing that for a long time.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.