This week in my grad class, we are watching ‘The Soprano’s’, and discussing how the characters are often unable to find language to express the emotions they are feeling. The conversations they have (especially Tony) with each other are often haphazard, discontinuous, and fragmented; Meadow will be talking about applying to college, Tony starts talking about the ducks, and it isn’t until Meadow says, “Bates is the most expensive form of contraceptive” that Tony actually acknowledges and arrives into the conversation; up until this point, it is just two people, taking turns, talking to themselves.
I can’t tell you how many times this jabber happens in real life; one person talks about the movie they saw this weekend, another person comments on the nail polish color they hope to use next time, and someone else chimes in about their grandpa dying. No one ever really responds to what anyone else has said, and no one really ever validates what is being said in the conversation.
And, in ‘The Soprano’s’, sometimes this prater functions, because they literally cannot tell each other ‘the truth’; Tony cannot tell Meadow he is in the mafia, Meadow cannot tell her dad she lost her virginity, and Carmella can only kind of tell Tony about her sleepover with the priest. But, in the midst of these disjointed conversations, they tell each other, “I love you”, and in this moment, despite all the dysfunction and lying and moral corruptness, it is understood that they do indeed love each other.
We created language as a way to ‘standardize’ the human condition; we assume that when we say ‘skinny’, everyone has a relatively similar association, and when we say, ‘overweight’, that should be relatively the same thing. So, by saying, ‘I love you’, we should understand that in the same way, right?
As The Soprano’s exhibit, there are certain emotions that are sometimes impossible to express with language: love, forgiveness, guilt, longing. I often wonder how many moments we miss because we fail to read other people’s emotions. Sometimes, we just can’t say how we are feeling, and we get so wrapped up in people saying these exact words to us: I love you. I am sorry. I really like you. I messed up. I appreciate you.
My family, a pack of introverts and raised by my European-influenced grandparents, are notorious for not saying how we feel. I can remember my dad saying, “I love you” maybe two times: once, when he was living in North Carolina, and we were boarding the plane to return home, and another time when I went away from college. So, because we don’t exchange those words with each other, I seek other ways for that affirmation. I know my dad loves me when he knows I am going into unfamiliar territory, and already has exit routes planned for when I call him and am lost. I know my dad loves me when he buys me a pair of electric socks for Christmas so my low-circulation feet don’t freeze at football games. I know my dad loves me when he offers to trade his car when I blow mine up. I know it’s definitely there, even if he doesn’t say it.
Or, my sister and I got into a huge fight over a boy, and stopped talking for a couple months (she thought I was being disrespected, I thought she was being too dramatic). But, time finally rolled around, and even though she never out right apologized for being over dramatic, her way of saying sorry was through pilfering my favorite apple cinnamon muffins, or calling to tell me a funny story, or asking me to join her at the dog park. We probably won’t ever speak about that incident again, and we probably won’t ever directly apologize, but that is ok, because apologies can come in many different forms.
And, of course, the always-awkward topic of dating: I feel bad for whoever dates me, because I can’t handle serious topics. Anytime anything semi-serious comes up, I make a joke about it, and skirt around the subject, and it never gets talked about, mostly because I am awkward, immature, and it’s uncomfortable to talk about my true feelings. You may never hear me directly say, “I really like you”, but you will know that I really like you when I straighten my hair to hang out with you, I skip a yoga class to see you, my friends know you by some mushy nickname, I text you facetious quotes or song lyrics at odd hours during the day. For some reason, we can never really tell the people we care most about just how we feel about them.
But, I think it’s about learning to read people beyond just expecting an “I am sorry” or “I love you”. When someone gives you their last gummy Octopus, that is a big deal. When someone picks up the phone after the second ring, that is a big deal. When someone lets you walk their dog, that is a big deal. And, it is within these moments that perhaps language has limitations–that it doesn’t ever have the full capacity to describe exactly how we are feeling, but that is ok, because we have plenty of other ways to express ourselves.