04 June 2023

Saying what and how

In the late 1980s, during a theatre workshop at the University of Peradeniya, Gamini Haththotuwegama got the participants, all undergraduates, to do a simple exercise. He wanted them to pick a word or simple phrase and say it in different ways, using different tones, to convey different meanings.

It is something we do all the time, but unconsciously. We say the same thing, even a single word, in different ways, in different contexts and to convey different meanings, but since they ‘saying’ of it happens at different times we don’t realise that variation in tone, inflection, the use of pause and emphasis, even pace can yield different meanings.

One of the students played with ‘nae (no)’ and another with ‘bae (cannot).’ Now ‘no’ could be used to say ‘can’t’ and that too was one of the meanings the particular student got out of the word.  Let’s just go with ‘no.’

No: as opposed to ‘yes.’ No: as an objection. No: as shock, denial, disbelief. No: rudely. No: politely as in ‘thank you, but no.’ No: firmly. No: hesitantly, as though you are saying ‘I’ll think about it.’ No: as answer in the negative to a question. No: vehemently and maybe with derision, as in ‘no way!’ No: with shifty eyes or eyes downcast when you aren’t really telling the truth. No: when you mean ‘yes’ but don’t want to admit something but nevertheless give yourself away by blushing, for example as a response to a question like ‘do you love him?’

Facial expression can also alter meaning. It could be a glance, an intense look straight into the eye of the person one is conversing with, a twitch of an eyebrow, a frown, a smile, a half-smile, a feigned smile or a slight movement of the head. These things add layers of meaning to a simple word such as ‘no’ or a phrase such as ‘I don’t know.’

Theatrics apart, there’s always a set of decisions one must make when speaking. It might come out as intuitive but there’s a lot of living, learning and communicating that bears upon ‘intuition.’ So there is a weighing of sorts. We decided whether to speak or to remain silent. If we decide to speak we need to decide when to speak, what to say and how to say it.  

Of course it is about what you want to convey.  It is not only about communicating a piece of information or a feeling, but sometimes there’s intent to birth in the receiver certain specific perceptions. We want to ‘send a message.’ It could be something that is benign. It could be some kind of assurance. Something that calms the other person. It could also be a nudge, prompting a certain course of action. It could be calculated to humour that person, make him or her laugh perhaps. It could be designed to annoy, to hurt and throw that person off balance, make him or her abandon reason altogether and focus on a feeling to the point that he or she might make a mistake.  Psychological games, then, are a part of it.

Will this hurt? Will this disenchant? Will this demoralise? Will this fuel anger? Will this, in this tone and at this moment lead to harmony or disharmony, the pleasant or unpleasant, discovery to concealment, the truth or a lie? These are the questions that ideally should precede word and the ways in which word is frilled. They are rarely asked and, even when considered, are often brushed aside.

And then there’s the problem of not having the option of taking it back. It has been said. It’s been said in a particular way. It has been heard and cannot be ‘unsaid’ or ‘unheard.’ Possibly not for a long, long time.

The ‘saying’ doesn’t always require words. A glance — that is all it takes to shatter someone’s world. A glance — that is all it takes to bring the constellations down. A glance — can say so much. A glance — can say nothing and sometimes this nothingness can be more devastating than the most hurtful word. A glance — there’s both the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of saying in it.

So, are we required to walk on eggshells, then? It might seem that way. However, just as that which is seen as ‘intuitive’ has an archaeology, there are ways of being, of thinking, of reflecting and measuring engagement which could ensure that the word said and the ways of saying it at some point in the future are less likely to leave a bad taste in the mouth, a vile odour in the air.

Reflection. Self reflection. We can rehearse the various shades of ‘no’ at times when we are not required to pick a particular form of ‘no.’  Then, when we do have to say it, it will be without rancour. It will be kind. It will be underlined by the virtues of compassion and equanimity. And a non-threatening (in the very least) fragrance will envelop conversations.

He’s long gone now, but it is as if Gamini Haththotuwegama sent me a single-word text message (as he had never done). ‘Yes,’ it said. It was soft. Wholesome.  

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

'Say when'

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart