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How to say yes without uttering it

Think of the number of times little children are asked if they like someone of the opposite sex and are unable to say yes? Their blushes might give the game away but the word will not escape their lips. Or think of the number of adults, their faces red-hot with anger, who are asked if they’re upset or annoyed and are unable to say yes? Children are often too shy to say it, adults are frequently too proud.

columns Updated: Apr 14, 2018 18:16 IST
The truth is the art of saying yes without actually using the word whilst still not being accused of evasion is not an easy one. Politicians need it most but they’re often the least skilled at it. Watch them at interviews and you can see them visibly struggle as they anxiously search for a way of saying yes without speaking the dreaded word(Getty Images)

Yes is a simple three letter word and one of the most frequently used but there are times when it literally sticks in the throat. Paradoxically, this often happens when you most want to say yes. Sometimes you even end up saying no instead!

Think of the number of times little children are asked if they like someone of the opposite sex and are unable to say yes. Their blushes might give the game away but the word will not escape their lips. Or think of the number of adults, their faces red-hot with anger, who are asked if they’re upset or annoyed and are unable to say yes. Children are often too shy to say it, adults are frequently too proud.

Because of our practice of takkaluf (formal etiquette), yes can be particularly problematic in our culture. Frequently when you’re desperate to say it you find yourself uttering no instead. There have been many occasions when I’ve been asked if I’d like another helping and that’s, in fact, exactly what I want but foolish inhibition or misplaced courtesy have prevented me saying yes. In India we’re saved by the fact we’re usually asked twice or thrice. In Britain or America, where you’re only asked once, you end up going hungry.

Last Saturday I discovered there are artful ways of saying yes without actually pronouncing the word. It happened during an hour-long interview with Justice Jasti Chelameswar, the second seniormost judge in the Supreme Court, for the Harvard Club of India. We were talking about the many problems and controversies surrounding the judiciary and its relationship with the government. These are awkward matters for judges to discuss in public. Indeed, there are many who believe they simply should not. But Justice Chelameswar had agreed to do so and, therefore, the problem he faced was drawing a balance between discretion and transparency. Or, to put it differently, between revealing the truth and hiding what most believe is reality.

Justice Chelameswar solved his problem by using two rather clever tactics. The first was a wide smile which also made his eyes light up. It suggested a clear message of assent even though nothing of the sort had been spoken. The long silence that accompanied it pushed the point home. Most of the audience understood what he meant but hadn’t said.

The other tactic was particularly novel. Instead of yes, Justice Chelameswar simply said ‘hmmm’. Most of the time this onomatopoeic sound suggests uncertainty or deep thought but when voiced by Justice Chelameswar it seemed like a synonym for yes.

The truth is the art of saying yes without actually using the word whilst still not being accused of evasion is not an easy one. Politicians need it most but they’re often the least skilled at it. Watch them at interviews and you can see them visibly struggle as they anxiously search for a way of saying yes without uttering the dreaded word. Usually they flounder and, frequently, also embarrass themselves.

In contrast, Justice Chelameswar was not just deft at handling these verbal pitfalls but emerged gloriously triumphant. Alas, I don’t think I have the restraint to imitate him. I’m usually far too fast to answer and then regret doing so. It’s only when you consciously hold yourself back that you get the opportunity to smile or just say hmmm. Now, I wonder if this is what’s meant when they say fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 14, 2018 18:15 IST