TAYLOR: Zip your verbal fly

Tell It Slant

I am not entirely sure when I first encountered the phrase “real talk.” I want to say that I heard it from Justin Bieber, but it’s hard to account for all the unfiltered wisdom that the Biebs has passed down to me over the years.

Nevertheless, whatever the source, “real talk” was the defining crisis of the five hours I was awake over winter break. I was Neo discovering the Matrix. I was Septimus Smith standing at the window ledge. I was Holden Caulfield for the duration of “The Catcher in the Rye.”

In short: I was an enlightened man trapped in a world of phonies. (In my fantasies, I am male in gender; I know you won’t relate to me otherwise.)

And so I agonized: What have we come to? Where are we as a society if our only means of effective communication — our only moments of connection in this world of silence and white noise — come to us in interjections of “real talk” within an otherwise empty conversation? Have I really just wasted a lifetime of discourse on “fake talk”? How can I, like Justin Bieber, penetrate to something real?

Like the majority of my unchecked musings, this was all nonsense. But my overreaction was, I think, a reflection of the worldview implied by the notion of “real talk.” Even as a joke, “real talk” reveals a discursive crisis which our community — and if I may be so bold, our generation at large — appears to be quietly, mistakenly suffering.

It’s the obsession with sincerity LCD Soundsystem parodied back in 2005. “You want to make something real,” James Murphy realizes of the artist who is replacing his old electronic equipment with new, different electronic equipment. “You want to make a Yaz record.”

The relevance of Yaz as a genre aside, I’ve had enough unpleasant conversations to know that there’s a place and a time for soul-baring and a place and a time to zip up our verbal pants. I’ve also had a few good conversations, which is how I know that it is an art form as real and as fulfilling for the soul as any “real talk” can be.

I’m not denying that there are conversations that we have — the ones late at night, in our deserted common rooms or shivering alone under the lamplight on Cross Campus — that feel more real than others, that offer us a deeper connection to the human being with whom we’re sharing our private selves.

But there’s a sort of impersonal laziness that has pervaded our casual conversations of late. In defaulting to “real talk” — in falling back upon the thought unmediated, unconsidered, unfiltered — we place our own needs to express and to be known above the needs and the comfort of others.

There are, unfortunately, times when people don’t really want to know exactly how your day went — when they’d rather be spared the knowledge that your afternoon seminar was ruined by an incautious extra serving of creamy corn casserole. But there’s a way — increasingly, it seems, lost on us — to say “it was okay,” or “seminar was … uncomfortable,” in such a tone that invites concern, should your auditor truly care. There’s a way to talk around, and to imply, the unpleasant details of your horrific night out without putting an acquaintance in the awkward situation of reacting to something so complicated and overpersonal that it seems both to demand and to preclude comment.

There is a way to be a polite conversationalist.

I promise I’m not some stuffy Victorian. It’s not that I believe that some subjects are “taboo.” But I do believe that conversationalists should make their partners comfortable, and we should never presume that a person’s discomfort with a topic is the product of some reprehensible prudery. I’m as tempted as the next girl to respond to, “Hey, it’s nice to see you,” with “Yeah, I’d jump you too after a beer.” But there’s no escape from such impositions of self, and my TA would feel much more comfortable not having to explain to me why he finds me unattractive.

No: For him, at least, I will try to be less selfish. I will notice what makes him uncomfortable, and I will speak in sentences that tell the truth subtly, in all its parts, without shoving it into his brain like he’s a baby and my words are an oncoming spoonful of mashed peas. We all deserve more subtlety than that.

As a great poet once wrote: “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” I may be wrong, but I think that was also Justin Bieber.

Michelle Taylor is a senior in Davenport College. Her column runs on Fridays. Contact her at michelle.taylor@yale.edu .