In a scene from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, one driver, Wizard (played by Peter Boyle), is trying to offer advice to Travis, another cab driver (played by Robert De Niro). Wizard tries to but ultimately fails to communicate words of wisdom to Travis, who then hesitantly says, “Yeah, I don’t know. That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard.” Wizard replies, “I’m not Bertrand Russell. Well, what do ya want, I’m a cabbie, you know.”
Like Wizard, many of us have struggled with listening to people in our lives, understanding them, and offering them helpful advice.
In this post, I look at the value of what I call words of wisdom in communicating effectively.
Words of wisdom
Consider these three sayings about pain:
– No pain, no gain.
– The cure for pain is in the pain (Rumi; Ghazal 425).
– When pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure (spoken by Anne in Jane Austen’s Persuasion).
How would you characterize these statements? Would you call them words of wisdom?
Keep your answer in mind, as I will return to the above statements shortly.
An important aspect of communicating effectively involves the message itself. For instance, when we get bad advice, we may compare it with more powerful or meaningful messages, such as proverbs, inspirational sayings, the writings of philosophers and famous writers, and lessons from spiritual traditions.
In my native country of Iran, people routinely refer to religious texts, Persian proverbs, and the poetry of the greats (e.g., Rumi, Hafez, Saadi) when offering advice.
Similarly, many Westerners recall the wisdom in the writings of the great Western poets, like Shakespeare. He has written lines like, “All the world’s a stage,” “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none,” “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” and “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.”
We continue to refer to such words of wisdom because they have the potential to reveal truths that can validate our feelings, give us hope, empower us, or enlighten us about the nature of life.
Nevertheless, do they always? In other words, should we offer famous sayings as advice in every situation and for every person?
Look at the earlier-mentioned statements regarding pain. Are they true and appropriate for every pain-related situation—be it childbirth, a stubbed toe, muscle soreness after exercise, a romantic breakup, chronic pain, and others?
Perhaps not. For instance, saying “no pain, no gain” may be fine when an individual complains of muscle soreness after beginning an exercise routine—not when an individual complains of pain after having accidentally kicked a table leg!
Furthermore, even in the case of exercise pain, sometimes the soreness indicates you are exercising too much or not exercising properly, which means the pain is not a sign of gain.
Perhaps these complexities are the reason we have a variety of proverbs and sayings for different occasions; a select number of them even express opposite meanings to each other. For example, we say “absence makes the heart grow fonder” but “out of sight, out of mind.” We are told, “do not look a gift horse in the mouth” and yet we are warned, “beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” We remind others, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but “clothes make the man.” Lastly, it is “better safe than sorry,” although “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
So using the words of philosophers or proverbs passed from generation to generation in our advice does not guarantee its helpfulness or appropriateness.
Some people believe using famous sayings might be even harmful because these sayings are so common that using them suggests the listener is not really making an effort to listen to the speaker. Therefore, unintentionally, by quoting words of wisdom you might be showing your lack of care and concern. Assuming this is true—and famous sayings at times sound banal, stupid, invalidating, or ineffective—then what else can we say or do during a conversation?
In my next post on communicating effectively, I provide an answer to this question.