Two Little Words

But vs. And

I learned an amazing lesson at a cocktail party last night.

The martinis were strong, the sun and the guests were shining and stories and histories were being shared.

I was speaking about my mother in relation to the childhood I experienced and the separation from distant cousins that had taken place over the last 50 years.  When questioned about why this dysfunctional distance had occurred, my fairly immediate, one phrase response was a distillation of years of observations, from the inside and the out, as applied to this particular band of sisters “They were bitches, but……”.

My conversational companion stopped me cold before I could go on further with the caveats that always apply to generalizations like that and said, firmly “And, not But.”

Full stop.

My brain was abruptly put on “pause” and I had to stop and immediately consider the simplicity and utter completeness of this minute word change.  It alters everything.

Words have always been of such importance to me, reading them, speaking them, writing them, they have effect and they have affect.  This simple act of switching out one small word, “and” instead of “but”, allows you and the reader the personal space to grow, reformulate opinion, morph a harsh and overly simplistic  declarative statement into one that edges the reader and yes, the writer or speaker as well, into another avenue of thought that allows room for a more studied and in fact truer sense of what you were actually trying to convey.

Yes, the mothers of whom I was speaking were bitchy in their own demeanors, bitchy to each other, in fact harsh and judgmental of many in their actions and words over the years.  Yet by using the word “but” I was offering up a less than complete narrative of their true selves that then forced me into the defensive position in my telling of their stories.

I would then need to clarify with excuses.  Excuses are so ordinary. They are what we proffer up when we failed to do something that was expected of us.  Is that what I truly wanted to communicate to the listener?  Hardly.

Instead, in describing these daughters of pioneer stock, born at the turn of the last century into harsh and demanding lives in very rural America, by using the word “and” I was allowed, almost required now, to continue with the other superlatives that they each held that balanced and in the end overshadowed the moments of bitchiness that sometimes hold our opinions prisoner with their incendiary, subversive tone.

These women, who overcame their own beginnings, raised interesting, educated and thoughtful children….more thoughtful than ones who would use the cheap excuse of laziness that the act of saying “but” entailed, deserved a better description than that.

And so………..where “but” stops us cold and leaves us at the end of a sentence, or a story, or a thought, with little or no room to engage further, an “and” lets us complete our narrative with balance and grace and give credit and honor to the ladies they really were.

Here’s to thoughtful listeners, engaging conversations……..and martinis.


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