When Words Lose Meaning
We use a number of expressions with one another that serve as shortcuts. Some are as basic as “hello” and “how are you?” Others are seasonal or situational, like, “Happy New Year,” “have a good weekend,” or “I’m sorry for your loss.” These phrases are like ready-made greeting cards that we employ in social situations, often when we don’t know what else to say. Sometimes, like holiday greetings, they are a way of sending good wishes to people that we may or may not know.
But sometimes these words take on different meanings than the speakers intended, and might be received far differently that we might imagine. Conflicts around saying “happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” are one example. A stranger actually answering the “how are you question” is another—we’re not really being asked to disclose personal information, particularly if it is simply meant as a casual greeting.
This question came to mind after an intense interaction on an airplane. I was seated next to a young man who confided before the plane took off that he was terrified of flying. As a Marine currently on active duty, he had survived a helicopter crash and was dreading the upcoming four-hour flight, an overnight cross-country trip that I had hoped to sleep through as much as possible. He ordered three bottles of gin and three cans of soda. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.
About ninety minutes later, the plane hit severe turbulence. Flight attendants were told to take their seats immediately, and the plane bounced until we quickly reached a different altitude for a smoother ride.
My seatmate was clearly upset. “It’s going to be all right,” I told him. He said he knew that it would be, that he understood the scientific reason for turbulence, but still was terrified. He again mentioned the helicopter crash he experienced in the Middle East.
“I’m deploying to Afghanistan again next month, and I can only tell you this because I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I’m scared. Marines aren’t supposed to be scared.”
I told him that being scared seemed like a perfectly normal response. He talked some more and told me about his mother, mentioning that he wished his family would be proud of him for enlisting despite their preference that he attend college instead. I could tell from his speech, and the emotion in it, that the gin had taken affect. He began to apologize, “this isn’t like me, drinking so much, but it’s the only way I can get through the flight.”
“Nobody knows what it’s like there unless they’ve been there,” he continued, “they don’t want to hear it. They just say ‘thank you for your service’ and think that’s enough. But I hate when people say that now.” He said that many of his fellow Marines—some of whom were on that same flight—felt the same way about those well-intentioned words.
He became emotional, apologized, and excused himself, got up and walked to the plane’s bathroom. I took the opportunity to try and fall back asleep; by then it was 3 am.
I kept thinking about this conversation. I had hoped that I had provided some comfort by listening to him, both to honor his military service and to help a fellow human being who was having a rough time. It hadn’t occurred to me that a phrase like “thank you for your service,” one that civilians are encouraged to offer in public service announcements, could take on another meaning to some on the receiving end.
Meaning takes place within specific social contexts, both in the immediacy of the moment and in a space of time and place. At a time when less than one percent of Americans have served in the military, it is easy to understand how those returning from active duty might feel alienated, especially considering the limited news coverage devoted to ongoing military conflicts. (By contrast, about one in eight Americans served during World War II.) It is understandable that those who serve may feel overlooked and ignored.
When phrases get used over and over, they may begin to feel trite and otherwise empty, especially if it is what we learn we should say in a given instance. These phrases may be part of accepted social scripts, and give comfort to those who say them to know they are acting appropriately for a given situation. What other common phrases do we use that may have lost their meaning?