Talking nonsense: easy to start, hard to stop (a lesson in humility for communicators)

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

I ran across the following passage in Bleak House. Someone is discussing Mr. Chadband, a preacher who loves to hear his own voice. (Dickens says he is “a large yellow man, with a fat smile, and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system,” an apt description of the man.) As Mr. Chadband begins pontificating to his small audience, Dickens observes,

“It is no wonder that he should go on for any length of time uttering such abominable nonsense, but that the wonder rather is that he should ever leave off, having once the audacity to begin.”

–Dickens, Bleak House, chapter 19

There are many Mr. Chadbands in this world, some with systems full of train oil and others with less grease in their systems. But no matter what their appearance, they speak nonsense.

Consider “nonsense” as any wrong teaching, false rhetoric, or prejudice. (Mr. Chadband is proclaiming that Jo, a homeless orphan subjected to this endless discourse of the preacher, is humiliating and mortifying him by yawning.  Then he sends the starving boy off, back into the streets again, without offering food or drink. Mr. Chadband has forgotten James 2: 15-16.)

Also consider that “they” might possibly be “me” or “us,” anyone with a platform, a message, and communication skills. It’s not just big megapastors or politicians who might do this; I know I’m capable of “chadbanding” with the best of them.)

Once they start, it’s difficult for them to stop, reconsider, and correct their words.

Even when the nonsense is clearly pointed out to them.

Even when their conscience tells them they’re wrong.

Even when the nonsense is not only incorrect, but dangerous.

Humans resist correction. We don’t like being wrong; we like it even less when someone else points it out to us. It hurts our pride. So often, we defend our words—

You took it the wrong way.

It was a joke—get a sense of humor!

You don’t understand.

The Bible clearly says that I’m right; if you knew Greek like I do, you’d know it.

Statistics (or philosophy or scientific studies) tell us that I’m right.

You’re a sleazy,two-faced, dog-kicking jerk, so you can’t be right.     

—and search for a way to slide the burden of wrong from our shoulders and onto the other person’s. I imagine Dickens’ character would’ve responded with more eloquent words but with the same intention behind them.

Sometimes, if the other person is emotionally vulnerable, the manipulation works; the other person is browbeaten back into line. Think, for example, of the many people hurt by abusive churches, yet too afraid to leave.

Other times, it leads to anger, as evidenced by some hostile exchanges online.

What this defensive posture doesn’t do is stop the nonsense. It doesn’t lead to change. It doesn’t lead to healing. And it certainly doesn’t lead to wisdom.

In Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, Gamache often tells his trainees about the time early in his career when he was called into the Chief Inspector’s office. He expected to be fired. Instead, the other man told him that there are four sentences that lead to wisdom:

I’m sorry.

I was wrong.

I need help.

I don’t know.

I think the Inspector is right. This is something that all of us must learn and relearn throughout our lives.

For those who have the gift of communication, it’s particularly vital that we learn these words and this attitude of humility. We have to learn how to apologize, admit our mistakes, admit our ignorance, admit that we aren’t capable of doing or knowing everything on our own.

That’s hard. It wounds our pride.

But it also leads to wisdom and humility, two things that Mr. Chadband doesn’t have chugging in his train oil-filled system.

So let’s have fewer Mr. Chadbands and more Inspector Gamaches, starting with ourselves.

 Image: Charles Dickens, public domain, found on Wikipedia

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10 thoughts on “Talking nonsense: easy to start, hard to stop (a lesson in humility for communicators)

  1. Those four sentences that lead to wisdom are outstanding. Laura.

    On spouting nonsense, I tend to fall into that at times. It’s not that I hear myself being nonsensical but that I realize I’m just prattling on and even after I realize that I don’t seem to be able to stop myself. Now that’s nonsense.

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    1. Sometimes, I speak before I think, realize I made a mistake, and speak even more nonsense as I try to dig myself a deeper and deeper hole of nonsensical talk. (Some of the sillier ones do make funny stories later on. Much later on!)

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  2. In my experience, the willingness to listen to myself and correct myself when I’ve gone wrong is essential to stopping the nonsense of my own. When I’m willing to say, “That statement was stupid. I’m sorry. I was wrong,” I get out of the situation with minimal embarrassment and trouble and I usually learn something to boot. When I try to justify my words, it generally doesn’t go over very well– even if I didn’t mean things the way they came out! and worse, when I did mean the stupid or inaccurate things that I said! I find I’m quite stubborn and don’t like to have to admit I’m wrong, though I’ve learned its usually better to do so.
    However, I have learned that when dealing with others who speak nonsense, its often better to allow them to have a face-saving way out than to rub their noses in their nonsense. Often, not always, because a loving rebuke is sometimes in order. I usually let a “I was joking” go by me with a nod of the head– though sometimes, my response is “Well, I didn’t like the joke,” or “It was a bad joke.” If the person is sorry for the nonsense, I let it go and forget it… 🙂 One can definitely start horrible arguments by not letting the other person to face-save, apologize and take back the nonsensical or hard words!
    I have also learned that it really is better to consider one’s words before one speaks. I have probably saved myself from many a trouble by stopping myself from speaking by thinking through and about my words and thoughts before I say anything. Well-considered words are better than rash and quickly spoken ones!

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    1. Thinking before speaking is almost always better. (The only exceptions I can think of involve extreme, high risk situations in physically dangerous environments.) The book of Proverbs makes this very clear, but as humans, we don’t heed that wisdom often enough! Maybe schools need to teach classes in silent thought instead of public speaking?!

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