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Blog // Thoughts
June 12, 2016

This Week I Quit Asking What’s The Matter

This week I quit asking “what’s the matter?” It’s been my favourite way of joining, or should I say, barging into a conversation. I’ve realised (too slowly perhaps) how off-putting and combative this phrase can seem. Yes, it might not be my intention to put people on the defensive, or make them angry, but “what’s […]

This week I quit asking “what’s the matter?” It’s been my favourite way of joining, or should I say, barging into a conversation. I’ve realised (too slowly perhaps) how off-putting and combative this phrase can seem. Yes, it might not be my intention to put people on the defensive, or make them angry, but “what’s the matter” seems to do just that, especially for people I love. Even if my intention isn’t wrong, I’m wrong, so it’s time to quit.

Lessons From Playing The Wrong Note

The scene was quite a few years ago now, in the kind of cafes we used to go to before hanging out in cafes became fashionable. The beat-up furniture, reclaimed sofas, mismatched art-deco lamps and oversized coffee cups signalled the cafe-owner’s desire to make this place look and feel like the set of that hit TV comedy everyone was watching back then (and apparently teenagers are watching again, thanks to Netflix).

I was there one night with a group of musicians, chatting after a rehearsal. We started talking about what to do if you play a wrong note, or a wrong chord, in a song. “Just slide to the right note” was one suggestion, a common way to cover mistakes, especially in Jazz. Everyone chimed in with increasingly clever variations on that idea. Then, our saxophone player stopped us in our tracks.

“Just keep playing the wrong note, louder and louder, till everyone in the band changes what they are playing.”

We laughed, all of us picturing in our minds an unrepentant musician prowling the stage, angrily blasting the wrong note at their bandmates, till everyone gave in. It’s funny, in a ridiculous sort of way.

The joke does have an edge to it though. Haven’t we all wished that instead of having to admit our mistakes, the world would sometimes bend to accommodate our limitations and weaknesses? We might not always say it, but how often do we think “just let me be,” or “I don’t want to change?”

What’s The Matter With What’s The Matter

I’m not sure when I started to use the phrase “what’s the matter” but it must have been a long time ago. I’m pretty sure I started out with good intentions. In our teens conversations often feel emotionally charged and maybe the cool aloofness of “what’s the matter” was calming. I don’t know, I can’t remember.

I am certain that my language was influenced by trying to translate “que pasa” from Spanish. This short phrase, literally, “what’s happening,” is often used like a metaphorical arm around the shoulder, asking someone what’s wrong and offering some kindness and support.

The translation didn’t work in Engligh though. People took issue with me asking “what’s the matter?” I was told “it makes me feel defensive” and “It assumes something is wrong.”

The Clue Is In The Language

This is the problem with translating phrases. Similar ideas don’t work the same way in different languages. In Spanish, “que pasa” is very casual. It suggests there’s a topic to discuss, an experience, an event, whatever it might be, but it doesn’t pass judgement, doesn’t identify it as a problem.

“What’s the matter” seems to identify the topic of conversation as a problem. “The matter” as shorthand for subject, or the topic of conversation has gone out of style. No-one says, “I’ll take the matter in hand” or “let’s focus on the matter” unless they are trying to sound like a character from a period drama, maybe a policeman or lawyer.

Other similar phrases, “what’s going on,” or “what are we talking about” also seem to have an off-putting effect, like one is trying to regulate the conversation. I could waste a long time trying to think through all the possible explanations, working my way through the labyrinth of sociological issues in how we use the English language, but that doesn’t change the fact I have a problem I need to fix.

Blasting that phrase at people, like the unrepentant musician in my friend’s joke, hoping they will change and adapt to my linguistic laziness just isn’t right.

How I Did It

I decided to quit asking “what’s the matter,” only to realise I still had a problem, how do I join conversations where I don’t know the topic? It felt easy to blame my inability to make small-talk for making this feel so difficult. Surely other people, those who seem to have no problem making small talk, don’t face these kinds of anxieties?

A few days ago, my daughter had a holiday from school and we went to one of my favourite local cafes to buy lunch. She was surprised when the staff there started chatting to me in Japanese, asking how I was and if this was my daughter. The fact is, even in a language I can’t speak well, I’m creating small talk around me.

It’s amazing in life when the evidence doesn’t match the assumptions we have about ourselves. I tell myself I’m no good at small talk, when it turns out the opposite might be true. I believed the simple question “what’s the matter,” was harmless when it was doing far more harm than good.

Rather than try to convince the people closest to me they should adapt to “what’s the matter” (blasting the wrong note at them), I have to trust my ability to listen, be patient and chose a better way to enter the conversation, listening to the key and tempo of the conversation before choosing the right note, one that will create harmony for everyone around.

This Week I Quit is a weekly series where I try, in a personal way, to address the habit of overcommitment. Each week I quit something, it could be an app, a habit, a possession, a word, anything that had a hold on my attention. I explain why I made the choice to quit and what it was like. Last week I quit 79 People and you can read all the posts in this series here.

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