We have two ears but only one mouth

In the hardware store the other day, I happened upon a friend that I’ve known for years but haven’t talked to recently. We were both, it seemed, shopping for mouse traps; I’d like to assume that it was the time of year, not the state of our respective dwellings that led to the encounter.

“Somebody told me that mice start bedding down in houses when it gets cold outside,” Josie said defensively, as if she hadn’t just made that up so I wouldn’t get the wrong impression of her domestic skills.

I smiled and nodded wisely to show her it was why I was here as well.

She sighed and put another two traps in her basket. “There are times when I think I’ll never get used to living in the country again,” she added, as an another reason for her to be in the rodent section of the store. She examined the traps for a moment and then looked at me again. “I haven’t talked to you for ages, G, but whenever I see you, you’re always smiling… How do you do it? I mean why do you do it? I drive past you walking along the road all the time, and you’ve always got a smile on your face. You’re even smiling in here by the mouse killers…”

Sometimes it’s best not to say anything until you’ve thought it through, so I merely broadened my smile and shrugged.

“See? There you go again; you haven’t even tried to console me about having mice…” She stopped midsentence as a thought occurred to her. “One may smile and smile and be a…” she started to say, then suddenly stopped when she remembered the rest of Hamlet’s words. She was a writer, though, and quotes seemed to pop into her head at the strangest times.

“I suppose it’s the default position of my lips,” I replied, to cover her embarrassment. But it did make me realize what I’d been doing: I’d been trying to figure out what she’d really been saying about my attitude. Was it just a friendly observation, or was she criticizing me? A friend of mine had scolded that she thought I was usually so intent on telling her my opinion, that I never really listened for hers. It was a good lesson in patience I suppose, but it didn’t mean I shouldn’t still participate in friendly bantering.

I guess I’m drawn to extremes though… I’ve always migrated to the outer regions of the Bell Curve for some reason. But for everything there is a season, according to Ecclesiastes; I really should practice engaging in meaningful, mutually satisfying conversations: contextually relevant and respectful of opinions; the alternative isn’t necessarily just smiling in silence.

I remembered something I’d read about ‘cooperative discourse’ by the British philosopher H P Grice who felt that conversations should follow the expected purpose or direction of whatever the topic was, and posited four maxims to help it along: there should be appropriate quantity (be informative), quality (be truthful), relation (be relevant) and manner (be clear). And furthermore we should communicate by intending that others recognise our intentions to do so.[i]

Still, something made me wonder whether a mouse infestation was really the reason she bumped into me in the pest control aisle. “I thought you told me you were born on a farm, Josie,” I said, but carefully, so she wouldn’t think I was being critical.

She merely shrugged, although I felt it was her turn to smile at my reply. “We had cats,” she explained, and then stared at me quizzically for a moment. “I thought you did too.”

My turn to shrug, while I hunted around for a serious expression to put on my face. “Everybody -except the mice- died a few years ago.”

Her eyebrows shot up, and the corners of her mouth down. “But you used to have sheep, dogs, cats, chickens, goats, geese… What happened?”

“I retired,” I explained.

She exchanged her concern for a quizzical look and sent her eyes over to me on a reconnaissance flight, before they settled on my cheek. “Doesn’t that mean you have more time for them now?”

“Time, yes, money, no…” I hesitated to resume smiling in case she chided me again. “And anyway, traps are fun, Josie.”

She seemed puzzled by that, so I decided to apply one of Grice’s maxims.

“When I had the animals, I had lots of rodents as well because of the feed -rats in those days- so I’d set a whole bunch of traps with peanut butter all around the barn and the chicken coop where the cats couldn’t get at them, and then do bi-weekly inspection of my trapline. I felt like a real woodsman in those days.”

She started shaking her head. “That’s so cruel, G,” she said, looking quite angry for a time.

So much for the utility of the maxims; I think I aced the information thing, though. I thought I’d try to use a few more of them. “Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind, Josie -in this case to the chickens. One evening when I got home from work, I decided to go out to the hen house and see if there were any eggs. It was really dark, so I brought a flashlight with me. On the way out there I thought I heard a noise in the tree I’d planted a few years before in their fenced-in run and shone the flashlight at it; a thousand unblinking eyes stared back at me from the branches…”

Josie’s eyes did the same. “Whose eyes were they?” she asked, barely breathing as she spoke. “The chickens’?” she added, still holding her breath.

“Rats, I think -the chickens were still in their coop,” I explained, still trying for an extra maxim. I counted up the ones I thought I’d already used in my head; I figured I’d pretty well hit them all this time, although perhaps a little too hard. I glanced at her face for a reaction.

She frowned and hesitated before reaching out and putting a few more traps in her basket. “Actually, when I saw you in the store, I thought I’d come over and ask if you had any extra cats you wanted a home for… All I really wanted was a new broom.”

I decided I could at least grin again. “Well, I don’t have any cats, but I’m pretty sure I have a few extra brooms in the garage left over from my animal days, Josie.”

She glanced at me, still frowning, as if she was thinking about it.

“Smiles cure the wounding of frowns,” I added, letting a major smile blossom on my face. “…And so does a cup of coffee,” I said, pointing at the Starbuck’s across the street.

“Is that part of the same quote?” she said, smiling and then nodding as she took the traps out of her basket.

[i] https://psyche.co/ideas/how-do-good-conversations-work-philosophy-has-something-to-say


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