There is an early scene in My Fair Lady where Higgins, who has just met Colonel Pickering, proceeds to run him into the ground with his enthusiasm for language and the human voice. He makes Pickering listen to a recording of a human voice speaking a syllable or two and demands to know how many different sounds the colonel hears. Pickering, frantically counting, ventures “twenty-seven” (as I recall). Higgins laughs and snorts, “Wrong by a hundred!”
The human voice, it has been said, is the most subtle and flexible instrument that we possess. The incredible range of vowels sounds we produce and shape and punctuate with our consonants (not to mention the clicks and gutturals other languages use to vary the mix) give us tremendous powers to transmit the finest distinctions of emotion and meaning. The precision possible with the human voice as a communication device can approach the telepathic in its ability to deliver an accurate picture of our inner selves to our listener.
More than that.
We also have the ability (as witnessed by poor Colonel Pickering) to cram dozens if not hundreds of almost imperceptibly different tones into a single vocalization. This means that we can, if we choose, not merely convey a single, precise burst of meaning, we can also overload the message so that we transmit a whole series of messages in a single spurt of sound.
This was vividly brought home to me by a friend of mine a few years ago.
As a start, I should explain that I have an asset that has made me a popular escort with a number of ladies over the years: I don’t mind going shopping.
On my own, when shopping for something for myself, I am a fairly typical male. I like to have a clear idea what I am after and want to get in and out in the least possible time. Wham, bam, and thank you, ma’am.
That is one side. On the other, if I am with someone whose company I generally enjoy, it doesn’t trouble me if we spend our time wandering around for a couple of hours, going from store to store in a quite possibly fruitless quest for this or that. I put my brain into some sort of passive contentment mode and go along for the ride. Sometimes I can even make a few helpful suggestions or search the racks for another whatsit in the correct size.
As I said, this has made me a pretty popular male escort on occasion, with not much of a downside for me. Or so I thought. But one day I learned it can get you in trouble.
I had stopped by to visit a lady friend. She asked me if I would mind going shopping with her. Seems New Year’s was coming up and there was something she just had to buy to complete her outfit for the evening.
No problem, I said, secretly reveling in my rare talent, exactly what were we going shopping for?
Shoes, she announced. She needed some pumps to go with her new dress.
This brought up two problems: First, this lady rivals Imelda Marcos in her supply of shoes. She remains the only woman I know who had to have special racks built into her closets to hold all her shoes. Obviously, she considers shoes to be among the most important accessories one can buy.
This brings me to the second problem: Apparently I have a mental gap when it comes to shoes.
I could meet the most stunning woman in the world and be bowled over by her charms. Afterward I could tell you how her hair was done, what kind of dress she was wearing, and give you a list of her jewelry. Odds are, though, I wouldn’t be able to tell you whether she was barefoot or not.
Shoes? I simply don’t see them. If there is a condition at the opposite pole from the foot fetishist, I’ve got it.
Right away, I could see this could create a problem. To be indifferent to something another considers of the first rank is not an appreciated asset. Add to that the fact that I simply couldn’t grasp how such short-lived things could possibly cost as much as they do, and I could see a shopping minefield ahead.
So I carefully warned my friend that while I would be happy to accompany her on her shopping trip I would have to be strictly a non-participant as I had this psychic blind spot about shoes. I swear to you I made it as clear as I possibly could.
She assured me that this would be no problem and that she was happy just to have the company. So we tripped off to the malls together, she happy on her mission and me secure in my non-involvement.
I got my first hint of a problem when, in the first store, she tried on a pair of evening shoes and asked me what I thought of them. I carefully reminded her about how little I knew about shoes but said they were very pretty.
That might have been my mistake. On the other hand it might have made no difference in the end.
At each and every store where she saw a pair she liked, she would ask my opinion. Believe me, to be continually asked your opinion on fashion when you know you are color-blind is no picnic. Pretty soon I was confining myself to polite and non-committal grunts and nods, but it didn’t slow her down a bit. Store after endless store, she tried shoes while I tried to invent new sounds that wouldn’t get me into trouble.
Finally she found some shoes she really liked. I could tell from the way she looked at them, the way she held them, the way she walked in them. I have to say that, as shoes go, they were quite nice. Light, silver things with a single wraparound strap. Not worth anything like their price of course, but very nice…if you like that sort of thing.
I tried the monosyllable gambit, but this time she wasn’t going for it. She stopped right in front of me, twirled around, and asked me how I liked them.
Say I was tired. Say my brains were fried coming up with new ways to say nothing at all. Say the great god of male stupidity perched himself on my shoulder and whispered pure evil into my ear.
I could see they looked a little tight. Knowing she was in for a long night of dancing, I asked her the kind of question I might have asked a man: “Uh, are they comfortable?”
I will never forget the look of appalled disgust that flashed across he face. “No!” She said.
I simply had no idea how much meaning could be loaded onto a simple monosyllable.
It didn’t just say what an incredibly stupid question I had asked. It didn’t just say how staggered she was at its naked, irrelevant maleness. It didn’t just say how completely disappointed she was in me for having asked it. (It said all those things, of course, in densely layered tones.)
But it also managed, in the same fraction of a second, to tell me why it was such a stupid, useless, and oxymoronic question to have asked. In a flash, it highlighted the separation between the sexes as a vast, unbridgeable gulf. It said, as clearly as a paragraph, “I said they look good, you idiot! Of course they hurt!”