NOT TOO BAD

In my expensive but not extensive travels I’ve noticed in Ireland a grand fondness for a phrase that is right at the tip of most natives’ tongues whenever asked any version of the question: How are you?

Try it out for yourself sometime, and, like me, you may notice the answers are so striking in their similarity you can’t help but notice: Not too bad.

If you’ve grown up here in the land of the 40 shades of green, you’ll understand perfectly well what those three words mean. In a word, they mean fine, or grand. And for those who haven’t grown up here – foreigners, as we’re no longer allowed to say… but non-nationals, because that is somehow so much better, isn’t it? – that’s grand as in well, not as in large.

Presently in the Emerald Isle and as far back as I can remember (over 40 years of green ago), the words not too bad = fine. It’s one of those things one might attempt to describe as it goes without saying.

Me: I got the results of my blood tests just now… and the doctor says I all clear.

Bob: Well, that’s just not too bad, isn’t it? Congratulations!

BAD RULER

I wonder if it includes all fines? If so, one might say, I was parked illegally today and got a not too bad. An €80 not too bad. And the person your complaining to (even though you constantly ask rhetorically what’s the use in complaining?) says, well, that’s too bad, and, because he suffers with lice, starts running a not too bad tooth comb through his greasy hair.

Beneath the pleasant surface of this answer… well, it’s hard to know where to begin, or whether to just stop now. I’ll continue… if you… like. Yes, please, that would be just not too bad. Thanks for the vote of confidence and vibes of encouragement.

The first thing that struck me about this phrase not too bad was that it’s usually given in response to the question how are you? Hit my aural-drum all weird, producing a distant dissonance that made me want to howl like a dog.

There are not too many things we can say for certain about the things that people say… however, it can be said that when a person says something, that’s where (at least some of) her attention is. Saying the three words not too bad presupposes at least four things:

  1. It presupposes that, in saying not, there is the opposite of not.
  2. It presupposes that the speaker is describing himself (or her general life situation, or the current event) as bad
  3. It presupposes that it could be worse
  4. It presupposes that the speaker distorted the question from being one that was asking for a positive answer (as in I am this or I am that) and one that was asking for a negative answer

It suggests that perhaps those who use it measure the quality of their life with a ‘bad ruler’. Everything’s measured as bad, it’s just a matter of how much or how little. Answering in the negative is not strictly confined to the question regarding the howness of oneself. It is used in a variety of ways each and every day.

Here’s a typical phone call that takes place every couple of seconds in the city of Dublin in some business…

Bob: (Salesman by day, on the telephone speaking to a receptionist of a large, international, multi-million euro company) Hello, my name is Bob from ABC company. I was wondering if you could put me through to Paddy Murphy, please.

Rec: He’s not in.

Bob: Oh, well, could you tell me when he’ll be in next?

Rec: He’s not in today.

Bob: Hmm. I’ll just call back when he is… do you know when then might be?

Rec: He won’t be in at all this week.

Bob: I see. I wonder – can you tell me when next he’ll be in?

Rec: He won’t be in… until next week.

Bob: (Picks up double-barrelled shotgun, puts barrel in mouth, places finger on trigger)

This kind of negative speak is so alive and kicking in Ireland that it doesn’t take long before it blends into the background. Kind of like pubs – they’re everywhere, but after awhile, the novelty wears off and you hardly see them.

Ask someone why they’re doing something. You might ask your new internet friend why she’s chosen to go to Spain for her summer holiday this year and she’ll more than answer something like: It rains too much here.

Me: Why are you choosing to start this new job, Bob?

Bob: My last job just wasn’t challenging enough.

Coulophobia

Don’t get me wrong… or, better still, do get me right: I’m not saying that it’s wrong or bad or idiotic to measure everything with the ‘bad ruler’, or to be motivated by what you don’t want instead of what you do want. I’m just trying to understand the state of mind or mindset that would cause one to do that. Knowing what you don’t want doesn’t necessarily mean that you automatically know what you do want. Saying you don’t like straight lines does not mean that you like crooked ones.

I met Bob the first time when he came to see me in the hopes he could get rid of his phobia – fear of clowns. Our conversation went along the following lines, and I often look back in fear to think we may still be there, looping, if Bob hadn’t let his cigarette burn down between his stained fingers and jolt him out of the hilarity of his circularity.

Me: So, Bob, what’s the problem?

Bob: Don’t laugh. Fear of clowns.

Me: Why? Isn’t that funny?

Bob: Not to me.

Me: I understand. So, what do you want?

Bob: I just told you. I have a fear of clowns.

Me: Yes. And… what do you want from me?

Bob: I thought you helped people get over their phobias.

Me: Indeed I do. What can I do for you?

Bob: I don’t want this phobia anymore.

Me: Fair enough. So… what do you want, Bob?

Bob: Are you fucking with me?

Me: Is that what you think?

Bob: I don’t know.

Me: I’m only asking you what you want. Tell me…

Bob: I told you! I don’t want to have a fear of clowns anymore. Do you have a hearing problem?

Me: What? No, just kidding. Listen: Here’s how it works. You tell me your problem – that’s the thing you don’t want. Then, you tell me your outcome – that’s the thing you do want. Okay. Ready?

Bob: I don’t get it. Is it me?

Me: Are you Irish, Bob?

Bob: Why? What’s that got to do with any-

Me: Oh, nothing. Now, let’s be clear, I do know what you don’t want, all right? And if you’re ready, you can tell me what you do want, or not, whatever you like.

Bob: I hear the words you’re saying, hear the question, and answer your question… and, around and around we go. Well… I don’t know. I feel dizzy and confused.

Me: About what you want?

Bob: No! I know what I want.

Me: Excellent. Why don’t you tell me?

Bob: I have told you.

Me: You’ve told me what you don’t want. That’s not the same, is it?

Bob: I suppose not.

Me: Let’s put it this way – you don’t want to have a fear of clowns any more-

Bob: That’s what I’ve been saying!

Me: That’s right, you have. So, what do you want instead?

Bob: Why does my head suddenly hurt?

Me: That’s funny. Mine’s been hurting quite a while now. Anyway, take your time, think about it. What would things have to be like for you to… know that you had let go of that old fear and… put it in the past now?

Bob: My stomach feels funny, too.

Me: Laughter’s a funny thing. Would it be right to guess that you are going to… laugh now…

Bob: (Laughing like a loon) That’s it. Laughing! I’d be around a clown, maybe at a kid’s birthday party or at a circus, and I’d be like everyone else, laughing. Having a good time. That’s all.

Me: That’s all?

Bob: Yeah. That’s it.

Me: That’s it!

Bob: That’s what?

Me: That’s all we needed to go ahead and help you get rid of that old whatever-you-call-it was and, you know, be phobic free now.

Bob: That was easy.

Me: Compared to what? Ask me how much it’s going to cost.

Bob: How much?

Me: Not a little.

Bob: You’re weird!

All meaning is context dependent. There may be an example or two to disprove this assertion but I haven’t come across one yet.

These meaningless things people say (by which I mean grammatically and not otherwise as they do convey meaning to those in the know) go unnoticed for the most part by most people. Changing context really sheds a new light on things sometimes, eh?

Let’s try it now, shall we? Now, imagine I’m in a restaurant and Bob’s the waiter…

Me: How are you?

Bob: Not too bad.

Me: What’s on your specials menu tonight, Bob? (Bob holds down a number of jobs while he’s not levitating.)

Bob: Not spaghetti!

Me: (Guffawing into my napkin) That’s funny, Bob. But really, what have you got?

Bob: Not calamari!

Me: Manager!

Originating (involuntarily) from the USA, I often feel glad that we don’t have guns available to the public here in Ireland the way the yanks do. And sometimes I don’t.

The thing about being solely focused on what you don’t want (the problem you want to get away from) means that you don’t necessarily know what you do want, and it’s hard to get to an unknown destination, wouldn’t you say?

Having your attention fixed, for the most part, on the things that are not, the things you don’t want, the things that are only named by (what you think is) their equal and opposite number, and being driven to act with a map in your mind that is not of the territory you want to get to, but that of the territory you want to get away from – sure, it’ll be good for awhile, but ultimately, not good enough.

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

May be as dangerous as driving down the highway with your gaze fixed in the rear-view mirror. If there’s a sudden alien visitation and a spaceship has landed in spitting distance, the fear that causes you to stay focused, jump in your car and take off like a bat out of hell is a powerful motivation and driving force…

and awonderful thing! – but just for a while. If you have nowhere specific to head for you end up slowing down and stopping in the middle of some cornfield because not seeing or hearing the aliens for a few minutes now leads you to believe that you’re out of harm’s way.

Away from motivation is fine for getting you started, as a catalyst, but what pays off is having a towards, somewhere you can aim yourself at and get to, and be able to know when you get there.

Am I saying that people who are toward motivated are better off than those who are away from motivated? Not necessarily. I’m just saying it might be more advantageous to be aware of the towards, too… at least as much (if not, definitely more) as the away from.

Which way are you motivated? Do you do things because you have to or because you choose to? Why are you choosing to read this blog? Take a moment to get an answer in your head.

To learn something new, to wile away some free time, to be entertained… anything like that is a toward.

To stop being bored, to get away from my non-stop talking mother-in-law, to take my mind off my depression… these are away froms.

It’s worth noticing what it is you are aware of and focused on in either case. Einstein supposedly said that your imagination (the pictures you run in your mind every day) is your preview to your life’s coming attractions. My NLP teacher wrote this on a flipchart: The best way to predict the future is to create it. Does it not stand to reason that if we create and run in our imagination the kinds of scenes and situations we don’t want, if that is what we put our attention on, that they will expand, as if our attention was a magnifying glass?

And just like a magnifying glass near a piece of paper, if you take your attention to a matter, you can never solve it (cause it to burn). Never! Unless you hold it still for a period of time. Focus!

There is another possible reason for why so many Irish natives say not too bad. They don’t want to say good or fine or great or super (except for John J!), or, for that matter, shite or crap or sad or suicidal, because that would be committing themselves, and we are, generally speaking, not keen on committing ourselves, are we not?

Also, if you answered the how are you question with I’m happy, it might upset the person you’re talking too, because you might be happier than him. Or it might be considered that you are boasting. If you say you’re bad, the other person might start poking you with the sharp ends of difficult questions. And that’s something else we are motivated to avoid – confrontation. I’ve seen grown men throw away careers and relationships rather than confront or be confronted. Confrontation is something we’d prefer not to confront, and as a result, is something we are good at not confronting.

BUT THAT’S NOT TOO BAD

‘So what? It’s a colloquialism, people say it, they know what they mean. What harm is there?’ Bob is curious, and it’s good to be curious.

No immediate or obvious harm, I’ll grant you that. But, the underlying mind-set – thinking in the negative all the time, in the what isn’t, always trying to move away from but not go somewhere specific… yes, it could do some harm.’

Picture a kid, say, 3 years old, playing at his daddy’s feet as his father chats with the neighbour he’s just made coffee for. The kid notices that his dad has left his own hot cup on the kitchen table and, wanting to be a good boy and get a pat on the head, he gets up on wobbly legs and teeters in the table’s direction. Bringing the steaming cup over to his father with a big smile, he is confronted with a sudden shocked look on his father’s features combined with a loudly barked command: Don’t drop the cup!

If you’re picturing it, you know what happens next, don’t you? Yes, the kid drops the cup. And who gets in trouble? The kid, not the dad. Someone should haul the dad off into the kitchen, give him a good slap on the wrist, and tell him that if he wants his son to do something it’s only right and fair that he tells his son what that is, not the opposite of what that is!

If you’re too lazy to make the translation for yourself, to figure out, now that you are aware of what you don’t want, what you do want, why shouldn’t anyone else be?

Bob: They should know.

Me: Know what?

Bob: What I want.

Me: In other words, since you’re not saying what you want, you expect them to read your mind?

Bob: Yeah!

Me: If they could do that, Bob, I don’t think they’d be around anymore. They’d probably be living it up on the island they just bought with all the money they made.

Bob: I’d buy my wife a car.

Me: Why’s that? She wants car?

Bob: We were talking the other day, you know? I asked her if I could do anything to make her happy.

Me: What did she say?

Bob: She said that there was nothing I could do to make her happy.

Me: And with a little mind-reading, you interpret that to mean that you should buy her a car?

Bob: Yes, it’ll make her life easier.

Me: And that will make her happier?

Bob: Of course.

DON’T REALLY TELL ME HOW YOU ARE

One person told me that the reason people use the not-too-bad stock answer is because they know that ‘you don’t really want to know how they are’.

Could this really be? I asked my friend if he was speaking from experience. He assured me he was. So, I went on by way of clarification, if you ask someone how they are, you don’t want them to tell you how they really are? No, he said cheerfully, do you? I didn’t know any more. It depends, I said, on whether the person I’m asking thinks that I’m asking the question for the sake of asking it but not interested in the real answer. Maybe I won’t ask anyone how they are anymore. It’s a plan, said Bob.

It is a plan – a plan that might help me avoid the following type of conversation ~

Me: How are you?

Bob: I’m not too bad.

Me: Oh, sorry to hear that. Hope you get better soon.

Bob: What?! Why did you say that? I said I was great.

Me: I misheard you. I thought you said you weren’t too bad.

Bob: Well, I did.

Me: Then I hope you get better soon.

Bob: I don’t understand…

Me: Ask me how I am.

Bob: Okay. How are you?

Me: I’m not a refridgerator!

Bob: Eh?

Me: I’m not a believer in fairies.

Bob: What? You don’t believe in fairies? Does that include angels? There’s this great new book called Angel’s In My Hair…

If somebody asks me how I am, I don’t know about you, but my natural reaction is to do just that, tell them how I am – excited, sad, tired, hopeful, curious, shite… whatever.

Bob: So, will you just not ask anymore?

Me: No. I will ask something. I’ll ask: How are you not?

If somebody asks me how I am, I don’t know about you, but I am at a loss to grasp why I would choose to tell them how I am not. Yet, it’s allthe rage here in Ireland. I am certain there’s some good reason for it, even though I cannot yet find one. It requires I dig deeper. Where’s my spade? Let’s dig deeper… let’s call a spade a spade.

Bob: What kind of car do you drive, Owen?

Me: Not a Citroen Dian.

Bob: So, what car do you drive, then?

Me: Not a Noddy car.

Bob: Why don’t you want to tell me? Is it a secret?

Me: What? Am I not telling you?

Bob: Isn’t that not what I just didn’t say?

And so on.

I feel funny now, too. As though I’ve tied myself up in metaphorical knots. I’m not going to keep writing. I don’t have to sit behind this desk on such a beautiful day. I’m not going to go to Stephen’s Green.

(PS: When I was out and about earlier, I asked people – How are you not? You won’t believe the answer I got over and over again: Fine!)

Confused? You will be. Tune in next time – same bat time, same bat channel… like, you don’t want to miss it!


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