Some people enjoy saying things they don’t quite mean. I am one of them. On a really stormy day, I will often look outside and say something like, “What a beautiful day it is.” I am not lying or trying to mislead anyone. Rather, saying the opposite of what I really mean or what is obviously untrue is how I sometimes like to talk. It is a form of irony, an exaggerated form of irony, and speaking that way often has more than one meaning. It is also a very tricky matter.
I might say something like I really enjoy Thai food, when it fact I don’t like it at all. And if you are the recipient of this statement, you are suppose to pick up on it and know that I am really telling you how much I dislike Thai food. As you can see, this can sometimes be misinterpreted.
But when you know someone who catches on at once, and this is usually a person who knows you very well, she might reply in kind. She will say something like “Yes, let’s go to this new Thai restaurant,” when in fact, she doesn’t mean that at all and you are fully aware she doesn’t. What she means is that going to a Thai restaurant is out of the question, that, of course we will go to our favorite French bistro.
Apparently, this way of communicating is rather common for those who speak Farsi. In an interview in the Times a few years ago, the Iranian novelist, Dalia Sofer, described the elusiveness and indirect way of speaking in Farsi.
There’s this whole idea of taarof—you say something you don’t mean, and the other person is supposed to pick up on it. For example, if I am visiting you, I may say, “It is getting late; I must go, and you say, “No, please stay,” and I am supposed to know that you really want me to go. People have to pick up on codes.
By no means is this restricted to those who speak Farsi. The American writer Amy Bloom is a master of this writing technique. (Maybe she speaks this way too.) In her latest collection of short stories, Where the God of Loves Hangs Out, the couple depicted in the first quartet of stories often speaks that way to one another.
Clare and William, who are having an affair, are about to have dinner. William has the gout so must eat mild foods. Clare goes out to the kitchen to make something for the two of them.
She “…gathers up everything that wasn’t eaten at lunch and every promising plastic container, including a little olive tapenade and a lot of pineapple cottage cheese, and lays it all on the coffee table in front of William with a couple of forks and two napkins.”
“You do go all out,” he says.
“I don’t know how Isabel [William’s wife] caters to you the way she does. If Charles [Clare’s husband] were as much of a baby as you, I’d get a nurse and check into a hotel.”
“I’m sure you would.”
And later, they are sitting together on a sofa where, because of his gout, William has to spend much of each day.
“A lot of activity here,” Clare says.
“Oh, yes quite a ruckus, “William says.
Here is one more:
“All right,” William said. “Let’s have it. You’re shipwrecked on a desert island. Who do you want to be with—me or Nelson Slater?” [a young kid in the neighborhood]
“Oh my God,” Clare says. “Nelson. Of course.”
“Good choice. He did a great job with the firewood.”
All this can be very amusing, of course, both for Clare and William and for the reader, at least a reader who takes a liking to this way of communicating.
It can also be equally amusing if you like to speak that way to someone once in a while. Knowing someone who also enjoys bantering with you in this way and who can easily catch on to your way of speaking is simply one of the great joys in life. It lends an edge to communicating, a little mystery too and it can often lead to sparkling conversations and crazy ideas that are sometimes not quite so crazy after all.