People frequently use expressions like "let's get together soon" or the infamous "let's do lunch" as throwaways with no intention of following through on the deed behind the expression. These figures of speech are known as stereotypical brush-offs.
A manager of quality assurance at a construction company complained in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that while he feels compelled to make polite conversation in the workplace, he's "not always in the mood to hear about their travails, about the traffic, bad weather, a flat tire, their job, projects, family, schools and their health from headache to sore toe."
With all the "How are you?"s that echo down our streets and the ubiquitous "air kisses," we have become habituated to meaningless conversations, to saying words that have no substantive content behind them.
In Jewish tradition, meaning what you say is not only a good idea -- it's mandatory. (Just think of the boon to the restaurant business if everyone really did "do lunch"!)
A specific category of forbidden speech is called "genaivas daas," stealing someone's mind. This is not an ancient vision of some science fiction monstrosity; this is about deceiving people with our words. If we inquire about someone's life and we're really not interested, that's stealing his or her mind. We're creating an illusion of caring.
If we invite an acquaintance over for dinner and a) we never really intend to have them over ("Still remodeling your kitchen, Doris?") or b) we know for sure they're not available, we're stealing their minds. We're trying to satisfy an obligation without really…satisfying an obligation. We're trying to create an impression of friendship and good will without any of the effort involved in created true relationships.
If my friend's word doesn't mean anything, how exactly do we define relationship?
Our family recently visited Universal Studios. The most interesting experience there is not the high-tech rides but rather the back lot tour of all the stage sets for many different movies. The guide is fond of pointing out how it is all a façade -- just the front of the building with nothing behind it. Unfortunately many of us have taken that as a model for our lives as well.
Have we become so used to treating others cavalierly? As the WSJ article suggests, "That's the sorry truth about office prattle: Our mouths move, but we often don't mean it."
"Often" is putting it generously.
We say what is beneficial to us -- whether it's in a business or social context -- with little to no regard for the person we're addressing. I have a number of acquaintances who have made it a habit to never return phone messages. I don't like the phone either, so I can empathize with the desire. But if you don't like to return messages, don't record any! Don't use your answering machine. Otherwise you are deluding your friends into thinking they will hear from you.
Although saying things you don't mean is often done as an attempt to strengthen relationships -- "I'll call you!" -- it results in just the opposite.
If my friend's word doesn't mean anything, how exactly do we define relationship? If her request for information is insincere, if her dinner invitations are always coincidentally when I'm busy, what makes this a friendship?
If he can't be bothered to return my phone calls, if we've been waiting two years to set up a mutually convenient dinner date, then this friendship isn't high on the priority list.
Mean what you say and say what you mean -- a simple prescription but difficult to implement. We don't have to express everything that's on our mind (especially if it's negative) but when we do open our mouths, "you gotta be sincere."
Personally, the people who have most influenced me are not the brilliant, charismatic teachers or the powerful and wealthy businessmen, but those people whose sincerity and honesty shone through, who I knew I could trust. And that's certainly what I want for my children. I don't want them "doing lunch" (although I am open to invitations!); I want them reveling in the joy of having true friends over for dinner and having a home and personality that is open to all. I want them to mean what they say even though the temptation is to do otherwise. It's an important part of being a mensch, which is what we all want our children to be.