Responding by Rote is not a conversation

Image by Madeline Laughs

When you’ve been speaking with friends for many years you tend to develop certain traits and habits to deal with certain situations. One of those is the art of conversation, another is the art of responding by rote.

My husband is the master of rote response. This rote list contains various responses that can be widely used under different circumstances, depending on the conversation or question I’m initiating. Here’s an example using his classic rote response, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

Me: Sweetie, remember when we were out last week and I asked you about this and you told me that?

Him: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

See how well that slides him right back out of the conversation? He’s answered my question, yet he’s remained under absolutely no pressure to continue the conversation. Pretty slick, huh?

The “I don’t know what you’re talking about” comes with some body language too. It works best when he’s doing something like Playstation or surfing the Internet because then he usually has his back to me or his head down so there’s no eye contact. You’ll notice the slightest pause while his brain works out “do I really need to respond to this, or can I use a phrase?” Once that decision is made you’ll hear the phrase and he continues what he’s doing and never misses a beat.

Another good phrase is “What do you mean by that?” You see, this puts the ball back in your court rather quickly leaving him ample time to make his escape. Here’s an example:

Me: Sweetie, you forgot to put the trash out on Monday for the garbage collector.

Him: What do you mean by that?

His most used phrase is ” It was alright.” What can you say when someone thinks it was JUST alright? Not much. It’s a real conversation killer. Here’s an example:

Me: Wow! What a great film! It had such a poignant message. What did you think of it?

Him: It was alright.

It was alright? Where can you go with that one?

As our relationship has matured we have patterns and responses that are automatic. It’s not because we’ve run out of things to talk about because we have full blown conversations on a daily basis. But there are times when both of us want to remain inside our own heads and so a rote answer is better than nothing at all.

My mother in law also has a list. One of her classic responses to an explanation that differs from her opinion is “Why not?” She says it loudly and with conviction. Unless you’re prepared to deeply debate your side of the argument, you’d better be prepared to agree with her. It’s an excellent way to get people to shut up.

Another classic response is “Daaaa-ummm!” This response is given with a smile and usually she sticks her tongue out on the second syllable as an exclamation point. You will garner this response when you tell her something you believe to be amazing, but she is quite certain it’s not amazing and secretly thinks you’re an idiot. But in an effort to make you feel like she cares, she will respond by rote.

Me: I was working in the yard today and found a piece of pirate treasure!

Her: Daaaaa-ummm!

One of my good friends in high school used to burn up the telephone lines with me after school everyday. Whenever I would tell her something I thought was important she would always ask “Really?” It used to piss me off. I was under the impression for many years that she never believed anything I said to her, so one day after hearing the obligatory “Really?” I decided to confront her. “What do you mean by asking me “really?”? Do you believe what I just told you, or not?” She was surprised by my anger. “I don’t mean anything by that? Why are you so mad?” I told her of the numerous times she had said that one word to me and that I always felt like she thought I was lying. She started laughing. She told me that saying “Really?” was just her way of acknowledging that she heard what I was saying. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe me.

It was just a habit. She was responding by rote.

Many times the art of conversation falls by the wayside as we abuse the spoken word enough to make it coincidental rather than essential. Speaking to one another becomes meaningless white noise. We stop listening as we spend more time inside of our own heads thinking of the next thing we want to enunciate out loud rather than hearing what the person in front of us is sharing.

We share details about ourselves and wait for acknowledgment that we have been heard. Often we are not heard. Often we are ignored. And often we ignore what is being said to us.

Today as you go about life speaking words to others, take a moment and listen to what you are sharing and then listen to what is being said to you.

Are you having a conversation? Or are you responding by rote?

If you read something here that struck a nerve, make a comment. I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to read more and just strike every nerve you own, consider pressing the Follow button on my home page and get notified every single time I bang on my keyboard. Thanks for stopping by today!

About Madeline Scribes

A writer with a sense of humor. If anyone can laugh at life, it's me.
This entry was posted in All kinds of Advice and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Responding by Rote is not a conversation

  1. Regyna Longlank says:

    I prefer the “right?” I picked up in nyc. It is so multipurpose, and means absolutely nothing. I am actually listening, sadly that’s something I can’t really turn off, even if I’m having several other conversations with myself inside my head I can still hear you. Sometimes I just have no idea how to respond. At least this way it feels positive, like a yes, but it is noncommittal. I learned this from my ex-husband, who is the king of answers that sound like yes until you get off the phone and realize you have just been blown off by a professional. Don’t try this at home!


    • I think I have learned to listen because I have to do it everyday for work. I have to be able to hear those hesitations that are the precursor of the lies and I have to be able to probe when vagueness takes over. When I’m not at work I get lazy and some days I do not listen as well as I should. It’s a constant process to listen and to comprehend. But the rewards are bountiful when it happens.


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