Thursday, September 18, 2008

Not to be a Blog Post, but...

I was watching Project Runway last night, and they kept running a promo for the episode of Top Design that would air immediately following. In it, they showed a tiny little clip, obviously from the "judging" section of the show, where one contestant turns to another and says "I don't want to throw you under the bus, but..."

And you instantly know that whatever he says is going to do just that: throw that person under the bus.

I've noticed this semantic/idiomatic oddity before. I write the emails for the Un-Scripted mailing list, and I once prefaced a slightly off color joke with "Not to be offensive, but..." only to realize that by prefacing it that way, I made whatever followed offensive. It didn't matter what it was. I could have said "Not to be offensive, but I like donuts," and suddenly somehow the fact that I like donuts is offensive.

I understand why this is. Our brains are constantly visualizing what we hear and read. It's automatic. You can't stop it. But we don't visualize negatives. A wonderful older woman painter I met once on an artist's retreat once told me she never told her children what not to do. She always told them what she wanted them to do. Her example was, if a child is leaving the room and you don't want her to slam the door, never say "Don't slam the door" as she's leaving. Her brain visualizes slamming the door and unconsciously does that, even though intellectually she heard the "don't" part. Instead this woman always said "Close the door gently" and the child would do it, because that's what they visualized.

What I don't understand is why we keep saying things like "Not to be but..." when it has the opposite effect of what we're professing to want.

Try it for yourself:

Not to be morose, but we're out of toilette paper.
Not to rain on your parade, but it's 6 o'clock.
I don't want to hurt you, but I need to go buy milk.
Not to cut this blog post off short, but I need to go.

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In 1789, the governor of Australia granted land and some animals to James Ruse in an experiment to see how long it would take him to support himself. Within 15 months he had become self sufficient. The area is still known as Experiment Farm. This is my Experiment Farm to see how long it will take me to support myself by writing.