Catchphrases separate the generations. That they do so seems arbitrary and unfortunate. Everything that causes friction between generations is unfortunate.
As a boy in London, I’d ask my father, “What’s up?” and he’d reply acidly, “The sky.” If he told me Middlesex, the cricket team we both liked, had won a game and I responded, “Did they?” he’d rejoin, “I just told you they did.” It was his generation finding my next generation’s catchphrases insufferable. In turn, I balk at his generation’s catchphrases, albeit now in America. Someone from that era might tell me this catchphrase topic doesn’t amount to “a hill of beans.” I can’t imagine a less compelling metaphor.
The most annoying catchphrases are those that signal nervous ticks. “You know” has been around as long as I can remember. Something long-forgotten that I read as a teenager convinced me to eliminate nervous-tick catchphrases from my speech. Thus it’s rare that you’ll find me saying, “You know,” “I mean,” “basically,” or that two-for-one, “I mean, you know.” I’ve never lost my dislike of such phrases, which have only become even more prevalent. The other night I became fixated on a panelist on some news show who said “you know” in every sentence. Then there came a sentence without a single “you know.” What a relief. But in the very next, there were no fewer than four.
The down side to my filler suppression is that I go quiet instead of uttering a meaningless phrase. People think I haven’t heard something they said because I didn’t immediately respond, or else they assume I’ve finished speaking. I’ve had to resort to catchphrase explanations such as, “I’m thinking.”
It isn’t just catchphrases, but the ways we pronounce words that divide us. In 1974, I stayed overnight at the home of an English couple who were in their nineties, a visit that involved me in a lot of listening and little talking. In his day, the husband said, people pronounced “secretary” with all four syllables, but now, in the seventies, they said, “secretree,” skipping the “a.” His wife agreed; standards were in decline. (Virulently anti-American, even though I’d met him in the Connecticut town where we’d both once lived, he undoubtedly didn’t realize that Americans still said the word with all four syllables distinctly articulated.)
I’ve been taken back to that era by C.P. Snow’s last novel, A Coat of Varnish (1979). The first quarter of the novel is a portrayal of several generations of people living in the Belgravia section of London. After that, with the murder of one of those characters, Snow layered on a police procedural element that is less about a mystery than a vehicle for more character exploration. Still, for that first quarter and many scenes thereafter, it’s an absorbing read. An underlying theme is the generational differences that discomforted 1970s England. Least among them is the elderly Lady Ashbrook’s way of dropping the last “g” of some syllables, a habit of the upper classes in her youth. (She would have pronounced my hometown, Darlington,” as “Darlinton.”) The novel’s central figure, Humphrey Leigh, himself a retiree but a generation behind Ashbrook, ruefully takes note of this speech pattern of hers. On her side, she dislikes such new norms as the use of first names among strangers. Humphrey tells her that this change came about long before. He seems resigned, possibly reconciled.
Generational divides can also be political. The novel’s character portrayal ends and the mystery begins with Lady Ashbrook’s murder. Even as Humphrey takes exception to its tenor, he acknowledges the truth in the obituary, published by the leftist New Statesman, that she “had known that it was right to appease Hitler, right to get rid of Edward VIII, right to regard Chamberlain as a savior, and then right to deify Winston Churchill.” Comparable enthusiasms in recent American history might be excitement for Reagan’s “Morning in America,” dismay over the senior Bush’s violation of his “No taxes” promise, condemnation of Bill Clinton’s amorous antics and patriotic reverence when the country’s first African-American president was elected.
But for all the generational divides the novel reveals, there is much to respect in each other. For one thing, in contrast to Lady Ashbrook’s mindless adherence to political fads, Humphrey is glad that young people think for themselves. Beyond the novel, despite all the complaining older people can do about the ways of the young, they don’t reject them all. Indeed, they embrace some of them. Meanwhile, younger people might be put off by the attitudes of their elders, but they respect their age, which is to say their durability.
The accumulation of lessons learned from experience is called wisdom, and elderly people used to be admired for theirs. But however we define “wisdom,” it’s hard to display any in today’s environment, when technology dominates culture the way Hollywood did in the middle decades of the twentieth century and rock music did in the sixties. Waves of technological change come at us so fast that it becomes increasingly hard to adapt. Someone well-versed in DOS might have had a hard time with the later Windows, while a younger adept Windows user might have been defeated by smartphones.
In the distant past, a carpenter or warrior would pass down the secrets of his art and they would remain mostly relevant. In country estate houses, “Cook” would train teenage girl novices with confidence that they were life-long lessons because the tastes of the householders wouldn’t change much from generation to generation. Thanks to skills that seemed to be in permanent demand, wisdom came not only in the form of passing along techniques, but also as advice on how to cope with difficult people, how to manage love, how to get through grief, how to withstand tedium.
It’s a cliché that today we’re so bombarded with data, images and Facebook “friending” and “shaming” that attention spans have declined. Besides, why read a long book when a paragraph at Wikipedia will tell you pretty much all you need to know? Older people, deprived of all this technology when they were growing up but thanks to that deprivation, were open to learning the value of study, concentration and focus. These are values that can be passed from generation to generation, but only when later generations are receptive. If up-to-date technology skills are a precondition for a person to be recognized as having something to contribute, society is the worse for it.
C.P. Snow (1905-1980) is now little known in the United States, but he had an illustrious career once admired on both sides of the Atlantic. The phrase, “corridors of power,” comes from the title of one of the novels in his acclaimed eleven-novel Brothers and Strangers cycle. He was a leading advocate for literary people becoming literate in the sciences. In the forties, he was prominent enough in the British government to be on the Gestapo’s interrogation list after Germany’s planned invasion.
The other day, I tried to explain to a friend what makes his novels distinctive. Clumsily, I talked about how the characters treat each other with grace and dignity. Also, for the most part they are kind. Of course, each generation has its own notions of grace, dignity and kindness, and each brings out these qualities in their own way. The novel’s title, A Coat of Varnish, is drawn from a character’s metaphor about the superficiality of manners, which, in light of the murder and more, makes sense, and yet like material varnish, the manners demonstrated by most of the novel’s characters turn rough to smooth, dull to vibrant.
The distinction I have in mind, which may well be subjective, is between feeling and sensibility on the one hand, and emotion and spontaneity on the other. Feeling can be thought about, and it is expressed through sensibility. By contrast, emotion defies reason and results directly in some sort of action, whether caused by that emotion or in reaction against it.
The problem with sensibility is that need for contemplation, which takes time. There’s little time for patience in our technological, “success”-driven society, just as there is too little time to read novels by Henry James, master of writing about sensibility. In the time it would take to do justice to a Jamesian novel, one could read three or four contemporary novels, skim through several online publications, keep on top of email, buy items from Amazon and lead a social life. Young people who grew up with this technology aren’t alone in establishing such priorities. Many elderly people acknowledge that they, too, no longer have time for long projects. No generation is an island.
Snow’s characters are caught between cultural stages, respecting and rejecting parts of both. He thus captures the predicament in which every generation finds itself. Today, we’re in a stage between long-overdue renunciation of prejudices (racial, homophobic, etc.) and relaxation into more genuine interactions that will one day surely become possible. It’s aptly summed up by the phrase “political correctness.” It must make life especially complicated for elderly people who grew up in the waning Jim Crow era and who inevitably absorbed its prejudices. Many have struggled to come to terms with their biases and to overcome them. Even then, they may express themselves in terms that younger people find problematical. So be it. Any among us who believes they could grow up free of the prejudices of their time is deluding themselves.
So much happens in a lifetime. In the voices of the elderly, history lives. They ought to be heard. Besides, their talk is less likely to be shot through with “I mean, you know.”