“Be careful what you ask for . . . !” Cautionary advice like this statement was liberally sprinkled throughout my childhood. Honestly, it was often offered as a veiled threat that promised unpleasant consequences lay ahead if certain things didn’t change. Warning or not, those words conveyed valuable information about the importance of being mindful of the things we say. Once released into the world, words take on a life of their own, inviting interpretations we may not have intended and responses we may not desire. Perhaps that is why my mind sometimes wonders about intent and the meaning beneath the surface of things said. Was our brain even paying attention when the sentence was being formulated?
In my youth, I frequently heard the statement, “Well, don’t rush off.” I don’t know about elsewhere, but in our part of the south that was a standard response said to guests who indicated they intended to leave. Dinner ended hours ago. The card game marathon was over. Conversation and laughter flowed throughout the evening. A good time was had by all. It was time to go. Even so, it was nearly impossible to get out the door without hearing those words. Sometimes it meant just what it said—“This has been fun and we hate to see it end.” Other times, I have heard it slip from my own lips before I even realized it was on its way out, as though it were part of a departure ritual. I’ve said it on occasions when I could barely contain my yawns or keep my eyes open. Honestly, the last thing I wanted in that moment was for the guest to stay one minute longer. Whether the visit lasted thirty minutes or a few hours, southern hospitality seemed to demand such a response. Perhaps it is part thank you and part standing invitation to return, a permanent welcome, if you will. But what if the ones leaving took the comment at face value and sat back down to stay a while longer? We’d survive, I suppose, but it isn’t what we had in mind. As the saying goes, “Be careful what you ask for . . . .”
Another comment ripe for disaster is “Come in and make yourself at home.” It is the kind of welcome meant to put a guest at ease but it is a risky thing to say without knowing how that person behaves in their own home. I take off my shoes as soon as I walk in the door at my house, but I’m reluctant to do that in someone else’s abode without an invitation to do so. I remember a development call several years ago when a new colleague accompanied me on his first visit. As soon as we stepped inside the house of our donor, my colleague took off his shoes. No one said anything, but the look on our host’s face left no doubt that she was surprised. Later when I asked what possessed him to do that, my colleague said it was standard practice where he was from. To do otherwise would be rude. At least it was only his shoes. On the TV sitcom, “The Goldbergs,” the father drops his pants when he arrives home at the end of the workday, leaves them on the floor by the front door, and marches in his tighty whiteys directly toward his favorite chair by the television. Others make themselves at home by putting their feet on the coffee table. Ottomans and recliners are made for that purpose, but I suppose we are programmed to make use of what is available. All of those may be fine in one’s own home, but is any of that really what is being offered by the statement “make yourself at home?” We all have “at home” habits that allow us to get comfortable and relax, but if practiced in someone else’s home might cause a few awkward moments. It is a sincere statement to welcome others into our space, but again, “Be careful what you ask for . . . .” Su casa may not be mi casa after all.
This line of thought was most recently rekindled when I noticed a church sign that belongs in this category of good-intentioned expressions of welcome. It strikes me as one that means well but isn’t as true as we would like to believe. It read “Welcome. Come as you are.” That led me first to wonder how else would a person come except as they are? Certainly we can pretend to be something we are not, but can we really ever leave who we are behind? It could be argued that church is the one place where a person feels pressured to put on airs, dress to the nines (well, not anymore), be what we’ve heard God wants us to be, and not show our true colors because “as we are” could never meet the standard for admission. If that is the case perhaps guests and strangers need encouragement to come as they are and the regulars need a reminder that it is okay to do so as well. The statement is likely intended as welcoming and invitational, which is a positive, but I have been around the block enough to know there are usually limits to this sentiment. Once the other arrives, after a brief grace period work begins to change them – whether we think we’re civilizing the brute, or scrubbing the homeless clean or educating the uninformed to a higher, better, point of view. Even the most universal welcomes, at least the ones I have seen, have boundaries beyond which the receiving group can’t extend themselves. Honestly, I’ve known things like hygiene, political ideology, theology, and even choice of Christian language to be deal breakers in the reception of seekers looking for a new community. Or more challenging, what if “coming as you” are means as a kleptomaniac, or an arsonist, or a person prone to violence or abuse? It is a challenge to discern how to be welcoming while not accepting of certain behaviors. Being welcoming and inclusive is not as simple as propping open the door and saying “Ya’ll come.” Unless those differences can remain non-issues, then the welcome statement is at best incomplete (as in “come as you are and we’ll help make you over) and at worst untruthful. More honest, perhaps, was another church’s invitation: “Come as you are. You can change inside.” That at least makes clear that a larger agenda or set of community standards are behind the welcome. Yep. Be careful what you ask for. And perhaps just as importantly, be careful of what you say yes too. Not all welcomes are equal.
Exchanges like these carry me into the realm of simple conversation, though some days very little about it seems to be easy. Apparently it is often difficult to say what we mean, so we employ euphemisms (For instance, “I lost my husband” usually doesn’t mean the couple got separated at Walmart, though it might.) or phrases that make sense to you but no one else (What does “that tickles the daylights out me” really mean? Even Google doesn’t seem to know). Then, there are statements that only convey the more palatable portion of what we mean:
- “I hate drama!” Generally that means, “Look out, because there is about to be some.”
- “No worries.” Mmm, most likely a bit of preoccupation is on the way. Even if it is not yours, it may cause you a bit of strife.
- “It’s okay.” It’s probably not, even if everyone involved wants it to be. At our house, when used to describe a dish or meal, “it’s okay” is as enthused an endorsement as earning an F in a Pass/Fail class.
Language can be complicated. Even if you master the rules of grammar, there is no guarantee you will communicate clearly. Idioms, slang, and dysfunctions cloud the message. Tone and intent shade meaning, which brings us back to phrases that mean what they say, but may not say exactly what we mean, as when phrases meant to welcome invite behavior for which we are not really prepared.
Rarely, if ever, is anyone intending harm or deceit in these responses. The desired good lives in subtle tension with truthfulness. Why is it so difficult to operate with careful candor in which we clearly articulate what we mean while making an effort to appreciate and not offend the other?
Quakers sometimes talk about “plain speech.” It initially referred to the use of thee and thou as a means of abstaining from socially imposed hierarchy. Among contemporary Friends, it more often describes frank, direct talk that attempts to get right to the point. In my opinion, some use it as permission to be rude, bossy, or just plain meddlesome, but if you open the gate you may as well expect a few cows to get out. Still, within the idea lives a seed for direct communication that can express appreciation or extend welcome without confusion, making false promises, or creating erroneous expectations.
I’d love to see the world make a concerted effort to speak clearly and plainly, especially about things that matter. We may discover we’re more appreciated than we knew, or less welcome than we thought. But at least we would know where we stand and could plan our next move accordingly. Then again, I’d best be careful what I ask for. So read as you are for as long as you want. I’d hate for you to rush off.