CLOSE YOUR MOUTH AND SAY “HMM.”
by Ruth Minshull
While living in England for a year, I often wondered (as I still do) how American English ended up sounding so unlike British English.
My son encountered difficulty his first day in school there: “The kids were making fun of me because they said I have an accent. But I’m not the one with an accent,” he added. “They are.”
In addition to the accent and pronunciation, the British use some words quite differently than we do.
I’ve always liked the way they call everyone Luv–everyone from the Prime Minister to the scullery maid. Obviously the word doesn’t have the same significance that we might put on it in this country. Still it’s a warm and friendly way to talk to one another. The world could use more of that.
And then there’s the marvelously simple Ta which serves double duty as Thanks and Goodbye. It’s brief, sufficient, and informal. Unfortunately, it’s not recognized in this country.
My favorite Britishism, however (one that we definitely should import) is: Hmm. This is not actually a word, of course. It’s a sound that falls somewhere between a murmur and a hum. When artfully used, the Hmm is much more than a flat noise. It’s a rich, all-purpose un-word that can be endowed with countless nuances to express surprise, interest, amazement, agreement, disgust, sympathy, approval–or just about any human expression. It’s a universal conversational tool.
I frequently heard this non-commital rejoinder while I was living in England, although I didn’t fully appreciate its versatility until one day when I was eating lunch in a tearoom. Two women sitting at a table next to mine were engaged in a lively conversation. The one with her back to me did all the talking (although I couldn’t hear anything she said) while the woman facing me said nothing but Hmm. However, the responder conveyed an amazing range of meanings by varying her pitch, tone and volume.
Despite the dearth of hard information, I amused myself by imagining what the young woman’s murmurings might mean:
“Blah, blah…” said the talker
“Hmm.” [Go on….]
“Hmm.” [Really? Totally naked?]
“Hmm.” [Why, that sod!]
From that day on, Hmm became a useful addition to my own vocabulary. I named it the British Acknowledgment. And the more I used it, the more I loved it.
Combined with gestures, facial expressions and subtle changes in tone, this small sound can convey a thousand meanings–and it can keep you safely uninvolved. It’s a perfect way to stay out of arguments between other people: What do you think about a wife who burns the eggs every single day?
You can deftly avoid commitments: You’re coming Thursday night aren’t you? We’re picking volunteers for the clean-up committee.
It can be useful in dealing with spouses, in-laws, customers, argumentative people and nut cases. It also has great potential as a diplomatic tool. And if you’re a politician you can duck and dive or promise everything without uttering a single quotable word.
There’s no smoother way to cover yourself. With skillful inflection, the British Acknowledgment might convey either Of course, I have the report done, or What mistake? I wasn’t even there.
Furthermore, there could hardly be a better disguise for your own ignorance. If someone starts talking about the information superhighway and you still don’t know whether that’s an alternate route out of town or a new rap group, you can bluff your way through with a knowing Hmm.
When it comes to matters of taste, we all get pinned down occasionally. But when asked, “How do you like my outfit?” there’s no need to compromise your integrity. Just close your mouth and say, “Hmm.” This could suggest anything from speechless admiration to What dumpster do you patronize?
If you are asked to comment on a ghastly sculpture your friends have just purchased, you may be gagging with revulsion, but your meaningful Hmm could be interpreted to mean, Botticelli would have been jealous.
You can deliver this murmur with practically any emotion, but my favorite is the all-purpose non-commitment. I hear what you are saying, but I concede nothing, admit nothing. The main thing going for you is that people tend to hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe anyway.
Lastly, this verbal tool is the perfect dodge to use with children. Son says, “I think we’re old enough to go to the movies by ourselves” or “All the kids I know get to stay up until 11:00 o’clock.” The innocuous Hmm means merely that you are in the same room and probably heard him. It’s much less of a commitment than “We’ll see,” which every kid interprets as a solid cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die promise.
This all-occasion response can be used to say almost anything, or nothing at all. It certainly makes parenting simpler. Of course, there’s one slight problem. The kids will use it too. I called my oldest son at work one day: “Will you do me a favor?”
“Hmm.” [It’s hard to say.]
“You know my navy blue dress with the brass buttons?”
“Hmm.” [No, but does it matter?]
“Well, the cleaners have ruined it. I’m trying to get them to pay for it and they keep giving me the run-around. Maybe if you talked to them they’d be intimidated enough to do something.”
“Hmm.” [I doubt it.]
“So, could you stop in there on your lunch hour? You won’t forget, will you?”
“Hmm.” [Forget what?]
In any case, the risks are small compared to the benefit of adopting such a delightful non-word. Considering that we lifted most of our language from the British, I don’t know why we left the Hmm behind. However, it is not too late to import it now. And we should. It translates well (with no loss in meaning) and our American English contains no word or sound that is so universally adaptable. People know you acknowledged them, but they can’t quote you; you’re verbally invincible.
In short, with this smooth little murmer, you can manage to be politically correct, socially sensitive, bias-free and inculpable.
Hmm. (How can you beat that?)
(c)2009 by Ruth Minshull
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