A brilliantly written scene in an episode of the TV drama “Rescue Me” made me laugh and marvel at the insight of the writers.
The firefighter character played by Denis Leary has this awkward, round-about conversation with his old man, played by the late Charles Durning.
On the surface, they are talking banalities but subtitles appear on screen to translate what they are truly talking about.
It was a scene that could be inspired by any day-to-day conversation between men or with a man: There is what is being said on the surface and then there is the subterranean meaning that you have to drill for to find out what’s really going on.
How many conversations have I had with my friends where the sentence will trail off and end with: “You know what I’m sayin’?” or “Know what I mean?” (And not the meaning of “Know what I mean?” as implied in the classic Monty Python sketch.)
No, in this case, the trailing off of “Know what I mean…” is signal talk.
You can practically hear the guy-to-guy Morse Code: Look, this is uncomfortable to talk about (dash-dash) or it’s awkward (dot) or I’m scared that you will judge me if I spell this all out, (dash-dot) but I’m trusting you to fill in the gaps as a fellow guy and that you’ll understand.
And the weird thing is that when we speak in this shorthand we do actually understand. Maybe not the very substance of what is being transmitted but we understand that there is an unspoken message being telegraphed.
So what happens is that you are sensitive to nuances in conversations and in Facebook postings. Does he sound like he is merely thinking out loud or is there some problem? Did that Facebook posting say more than it usual does? Is there a call for help in there somewhere?
My friends and I get together maybe four times a year. Half a dozen at the very most. So the vast majority of the time we spend is focused on merciless ball-breaking, belching and bad wisecracks that should get our Three Stooges membership cards awarded gold stars.
We are so busy letting our hair down in the compacted time we have together, there is an infinitesimal period of time spent discussing serious topics, like our health, family matters, jobs, etc.
Such topics are relegated to code speak.
A break in this pattern came recently when I had the rare privilege of spending a week’s vacation with my wife and my childhood buddy and his wife on a remote Caribbean island. Pedro and I had several intimate conversations because of the extended period we shared (and because we walked a mile-plus into town each day to stock up on essentials, like milk and booze).
But those interactions were the exceptions to the rule.
I don’t know that most men have daily close interactions with their buds that can lead to serious conversations. Instead, I think many men are separated by time and/or distance, so that when they do get together, it’s all about the pent-up relief at being able to spend time with a male buddy. That leaves the conversations fun and loose but maybe a little superficial.
I believe the pattern of things being left unsaid spans generations and is likely rooted in our upbringings.
Case in point: A typical phone call to my parents (who live three hours away and who I see maybe five or six times a year) will consist of my father answering the phone and the conversation going like this:
Dad: Hiya doin’ sport?
Me: Things are OK.
Dad: They treating you OK on the job?
Me: Yeah, things are OK. How about you? How are you feeling?
Me: That’s good.
Dad: OK. You want to talk to your mother?
See what I mean?
Know what I mean?