That’s Nice

by John Caruso

Think about the simple phrase, “that’s nice.” At first, these two words seem direct. They don’t appear to harbor any confusion at all. However, without context, this phrase has no definite meaning. It could be affectionate. It could be condescending or dismissive. It could be a sarcastic retort or a distracted non sequitur. Without context, a reader has no clue as to what the writer wants to communicate.

When we interact with others (in non-written ways, that is), we employ a variety of communication tools. In addition to our actual words, we use body language and we manipulate our voices. If someone is angry, she may shout and wave her arms. If someone is happy, his whole face smiles and his voice sounds bright and cheery.

As writers, it is our job to ensure we write precisely and clearly. We do not have the luxury of vocal subtly or body language, but we do have context. Let’s look at that phrase again, but this time, we’ll add some more information.

1. The little girl held aloft the bouquet. Her grandmother took the flowers and stroked the velvety rose petals. “That’s nice,” she said. Her 80th birthday party was already a success, and it had only just begun.

2. Tara slouched over the newspaper and tried to read an article on some polar expedition. Rudolpho prattled on about satellite dishes or serving dishes or salmon fishes—she didn’t care enough to pay attention. Every minute or so she gave him a perfunctory, “that’s nice,” just to keep him from asking her too many questions.

3. Dirk pulled over, barely able to make it to the shoulder on two blown tires. He pulled out his cell phone, but the batteries were dead. He got out of the car to inspect the damage. A drop of rain plunked him on the nose. Many others followed in quick succession. “That’s nice,” he said as he began to cry out of frustration.

4. They broke their passionate kiss. The fireplace illuminated her eyes, already sparkling with passion. “That’s nice,” she said, her words all throaty and luscious.

As we write, we may understand perfectly what we’re trying to say, but if we do not effectively communicate with our words, we have done a poor job. For instance, as I dashed together the examples above, I originally had Dirk’s engine catching fire. After he abandoned the car, he found his cell phone wasn’t working, and it started to rain. In my head, the rain was the final insult, and thus the “that’s nice,” was uttered out of sarcastic frustration. But when I went back and re-read the example, I realized it could have been interpreted as relief: the rain would put out the fire. That’s nice.

When you review your writing, read with a detached eye (no, do not take your eyeball out of the socket, read it as one who would have no idea what you’re writing about—see, I wasn’t clear). Have you been precise? Are you communicating exactly what you wanted? Can your words be interpreted in another way? Because this may be difficult—after all, you already know what you were trying to say—consider letting another person read through your piece, specifically asking them to read for clarity. Did they “get it?” If not, revise. Make sure every “that’s nice” means exactly what you want, even if it’s not always that nice.

© 2002 by John Caruso

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