gary s. whitford

“Where do you want to eat?”

Of all the words we use to communicate, the vast majority are spoken one-on-one or in very small, usually familiar, groups. Among a regular group of fellows gathered for an evening’s fellowship, or best friends bunched for a night out, the subject is food, and the conversation starts with:


I have two friends I have dined with regularly for several decades, and the conversation can take two or three hours. Between restaurants and diners considered and rejected, we can talk about music, popular entertainment and old friends recently reacquainted or fondly missed. But you don’t want to start the conversation hungry, because it will take awhile to settle upon a destination.

Engaged and Refracted

When we converse, our brain is engaged. We are hearing what is being said, associating incoming content with other references, formulating a response, noting peripheral stimuli in the environment and considering what we might eat for dinner. It is a multifaceted engagement, a prism with light (our friend’s dialog) coming in and splitting through internal processing that includes a lifetime of associations. When we speak, we can only hope that our words are received with benign, if not benevolent, orchestration.

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“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good,” Nina Simone sang, “Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”

Allow the Interruption

“Crosstalk” is a significant part of conversation. The longer we have known someone, the more likely we are to believe we know what they are going to say next. It seems efficient to step on the line and respond with our clever repartee before the sentence is complete.

Andy and Nora, crosstalkin' at a coffee shop. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Andy and Nora, crosstalkin’ at a coffee shop. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

David Fincher, director of The Social Network was on Fresh Air Thursday with Kevin Spacey, interviewed by Dave Davies. They talked about a scene between actors playing Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend. Fincher shot 99 takes from six different angles. He said the timing required for crosstalk to communicate well on the screen, along with shooting the scene from a variety of angles for good editing created the need for so many takes. It is difficult, but perhaps not impossible, for us to talk over one another and still be understood.

Excuse Me?

The most common question among couples or families is: “Huh?”

When we share a residence, it’s just more convenient to call out across rooms to ask and answer simple questions. It’s quite likely that the conversants are engaged in separate activities when one decides to communicate with the other. Those of us with aging rocknroll ears, featuring a constant high-pitched ringing, may not catch all the nuances of what’s being said, even when in the same car.

Next time you find yourself asking, “Huh,” get up out of your chair, walk over to your partner, spouse, child or friend and square up. Take a deep breath, look him or her in the eyes and ask for the question to be repeated. Answer well, and happily, even questions that start with “Why…”

Conversation is how we do business, how we build relationships, how we pass knowledge from one generation to another. The words we exchange have meaning, even if they initiate a complicated labyrinth that reviews every restaurant in our great city before deciding how to fuel our bodies for the evening. Listen well, respond with kindness – make every word count.

Coffee. Rose. Stranger in a Strange Land.

SPECIAL NOTE: We are researching a story for an upcoming Every Word Counts about how we use pen and paper in the age of text and post. We have a short survey that we would like to distribute to a variety of people. If you are willing to take our survey and share your thoughts about handwriting in the keyboard era, please email gary, with “writing in hand” in the subject line. Yes, we grok the irony.

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is half of Extraordinary Words, providing effective communications for business and non-profit development. You can find Extraordinary Words on Facebook, LinkedIn and its website. You can read more of gary’s writing on his personal blog.

Click For More of gary’s column: Every Word Counts

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at