Opinion: Taking it personally


One strong indication of fluency in a language (or culture) is a robust command of the idiom and expressions that shortcut our daily communicative interactions. When we say, “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” we are rarely talking to someone who has just become emotional at the wasting of the common dairy product. It is more likely that we are suggesting that the listener take stock of his or her situation and recognize the relative insignificance of the matter when compared to the reaction offered. In a nutshell, we are saying: Don’t overreact.

Our language, like most around the planet, is littered with these shorthand alternatives to communicate ideas. They help us interact more quickly even as they serve to define us as sharing a common cultural understanding and heritage. Any among us who manages to speak more than one language will say, in multiple tongues, that understanding and correctly using the idiom not only ingratiates one to the locals – it also proves a deep commitment to word and culture.

But, do we give sufficient review to these linguistic devices? Does their simplicity belie an inherent and more sinister deception? Take for example, the common expression “to take something personally.” In a nutshell, it informs the listener that his reaction to another’s act, omission or viewpoint should remain the focus and that the listener is shifting toward his own “feeling” about the matter.

When we tell others to stop taking our actions personally, are we really telling them that they are not allowed to have an emotional response? Do we have that right? If the matter is applied without regard to the person – e.g., all employees in the plant are fired – can we restrict one’s feelings? Should we? Isn’t emotion an integral and important element of our humanity? Absent it, we are less.

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