Posted by: xeper | April 29, 2008

Of Propriety and Appropriateness – An Invitation to Improper Expression

I always tried to keep my speech proper. I suppose with some focus I can count the times I used “improper” speech. A supposedly proud track record of more than 30 years of proper speech.

It is easy to spot improper speech. It is therefore quite easy to refrain from using it. But how to spot inappropriate speech?

Oh, no, please don’t give me that perplexed look! And, above all, don’t let social programming tell you (not to mention tell me!) that proper speech is by definition appropriate; nor that improper speech is by definition inappropriate because that would be a lie! A very inappropriate thing to say between friends, a lie, isn’t it? Particularly between seekers of Truth and Appropriateness. And yet I have never seen Truth being as properly put as lies.

In a movie I watched recently they quoted someone (but quotation references say it’s someone else’s) saying “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” Well, if you ever need a quote about truth and lies I can easily tell you: “The difference between truth and lies? Truth is often improper to say.”

During World War II, when the age of propriety was ending, and the age of appropriateness was yet to come (it’s been a long wait but I’m still hopeful), a monumental movie was being produced on the other side of the ocean, Gone with the Wind, where Rhett Butler needed to tell Scarlett O’Hara her a phrase that was deemed improper. The production team tried many different, more proper phrases, but none of the adapted phrases gave the desired impact. The original, improper phrase seemed to be the most appropriate for the situation: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

My point is probably clear now, but since I need a transitional paragraph, I’ll probably end with the classical example of Hans Christian Andersen’s memorable tale about The Emperor’s New Clothes, where a yet-to-be-socially-programmed child is the only one in the crowd to yell the improper truth “The Emperor is NAKED!!”. Was it appropriate to say that?? Well, judging by he results according to Hans’ tale, the people regained their confidence, and the truth became evident to all. A whole country was losing its self-confidence, its self-respect, to keep a so-called proper attitude towards a naked emperor. Was it not yelled out, they would have not been worthy of remembrance. Sometimes, I would therefore venture to say, it is appropriate, even necessary, to shock people out of blind propriety; sometimes, that is, it is highly appropriate to be radically improper.

This kind of sums up my inner debate on Propriety and Appropriateness. Please join with your comments.



  1. Truth is rarely spoken properly, perhaps because it is rarely spoken at all, especially when it is needed and necessary. How often have we felt like the child watching the emperor, yet been unable to speak what is obviously true, because it would not be accepted?

    The problem with truth, however, is precisely that. Even when it is spoken where needed most, and with eloquence, no one ever expects to hear it, and so it is regarded as an affront ,or hostile, even though it may not be intended as such at all. Had one of the emperor’s ministers told him beforehand that his clothes were make-believe, in order to save him from embarrassment, we know exactly what the reaction would have been, for we have all faced exactly that at the hands of our own superiors. Alas someone who speaks truthfully, even in the best way possible, is often the messenger with news that people do not wish to hear… And we all know the adage about the messenger.

    Truth, respect, trust and co-operation are inseparable. We cannot be truthful about anything because so often there is no trust between people. Co-operation is now an alien concept to us, and we believe that people only tell us the truth if it is somehow intended to weaken our position and strengthen their own. Without these things there is no respect, and the whole cycle starts afresh.

    Truth isn’t the first casualty of war. It dies long before things get to that stage, when individuals in society no longer see others around them as deserving of respect, trust and honesty in general.

    Just my two cents worth…

  2. Well, that was definitely more than two cents, Krys, can I keep the change? 🙂 Now seriously, your comments have this quality of stunning me in a way I have to come back and reread them.. Thank you for being there..

  3. […] post, and for that, a rather.. “desperate”.. language was used. While a few may call it improper language, I call it appropriate to the story in […]

  4. “[Were] it not yelled out, they would have not been worthy of remembrance.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: