“I know” – “I have been there”
A few weeks ago, I told my American flat mate about a British actor I am quite fond of at the moment. As I was eagerly listing his films that I had seen so far, she repeatedly told me that she “already knows.” But, how? So, I already told you? Too bad I simply cannot recollect any prior conversations about this very actor with you… If I have told you already – are you bored? I mean – judging by how often you seem to reassure me that I have told you already, I must have raised this topic about a dozen times. I was puzzled and it took me quite a while to figure out that this line was just a “shortcut” for saying “I know what you are talking about because I feel the same; I resonate with the things you are saying.” Why do we always try to make our utterances “more efficient” by just getting rid of the main, especially for a foreigner, most important part?
A few days later, I went to a party where the hostess let us in on the details of her recent breakup with her boyfriend. As this was a delicate topic, I was again puzzled when I heard the person next to me say that she “had been there.” As far as I was concerned, my neighbor too was meeting the hostess for the very first time. So how could she be, together with the former couple, right in the middle of their breakup drama? Again it took some time to uncover and rephrase yet another “shortcut”: “I have been, especially emotionally, in the same situation and understand your feelings and concerns.”
I perceive myself as a detective, on the lookout for idioms, seeking to uncover their meaning, to let truth and justice be my guide in any conversation. For this purpose, I have opened up a newly generated “empathy assurance folder” – just to keep track of the shortcuts that I encounter. But how many transparent envelopes should I dedicate to this category? Will I rename it after a while? And how many more folders will I have to add in the next month to store beside the first one? It seems that I might need to get a more stable IKEA cupboard, just to be safe… How much more is out there waiting to be uncovered, analyzed and rephrased?