On a scale of one to ten, how bad do you think your situation was?
“A fifteen!” will likely be the answer. If that’s not the exact number they choose, we can be sure that whatever number they choose will be outside the ‘one to ten’ parameters we set up in our question.
We understand the overwhelming need some have to stray from the parameters, to help us understand that the situation they just experienced was of such an unprecedented magnitude that placing it in normal human parameters will not do it justice. By doing it so often, however, we not only render the parameters meaningless but the unnecessarily extreme answers as well. We’ve arrived at a point where if someone does remain within the parameters and answers with a ten, we may walk away with the “nothing to see here” mindset that occurs when witnesses of a tragedy realize that the last bloody body was just removed.
Further details may eventually reveal the person’s tragedy to be of an unprecedented magnitude, but a parameter abiding answer just feels so anticlimactic in lieu of the advancements we’ve made in this assessment conversation that we can’t help but think that it does a disservice to their tragedy to remain within parameters. If these tragedy survivors stubbornly insist on remaining within the parameters, after repeated warnings, we may begin to wonder if they are of foreign descent, and thus unfamiliar with the advancements we’ve made, or if their unusual desire to stay within the parameters suggests that they might on the spectrum.
For those that can’t pound a point home, without straying from the parameters, an acceptable alternative can be found in an excessive use of syllables. The rules of syllabication are often used to punctuate comedic points, but they can also be used to pound ultra-serious points home in a manner few other answers can. How bad do you think that situation was? “A seven-point-seven!” What? “I’m telling you, ‘My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.’”
One reason those that stray from parameters do so, may have something to do with a subconscious realization that single syllable numbers like eight, nine, and ten don’t have the emotional impact that a multi-syllabic numbers will. This coupled with the fact that a multi-syllabic seven is less than those numbers, prompts some people to go outside the parameter of the question searching for their illustrative needs. Yet, most of us have reached a point where these answers have become so common that their intended syllabic resonance has faded. It’s become a cliché at this point, and if you’re looking for sympathetic impact clichés are to be avoided at all cost.
The decimal point not only allows its user to almost triple their syllabic output, but it may also provide your assessment an illusion of expert exactitude. Your audience will surely be confused by this answer initially, but that confusion could progress to awe, and it may eventuate into the holy grail of all sympathy seekers: A desire to have you repeat the details of your tragedy.
“Holy Criminy! What happened again?!”
Those of us that have heard the parameter stretching answers used so often that they’re meaningless now, are sure that their pervasive use is based on the fact we haven’t provided them a suitable alternative. And while we make no claim to this being the answer to all of your illustrative needs, it might be one to consider the next time you feel the need to extract an exaggerated amount of sympathy from your peers.
“I only wish more people could see the side of him that I do,” a friend of a famous person, stereotyped for being ultra-serious, says. “He’s actually, really very funny.” This friend will then go on to provide general information that characterizes a playful side of this famous person that most people don’t know. They may say something like, “Behind closed doors, he just has us in stitches. He loves children, and there’s nothing he loves more than watching a little kitten play with a ball of yarn.” This friend usually lays out the evidence of their friend’s silly side at a time when it is most beneficial for that politician, star, and/or actor to have a softer, more playful side added to their profile. The best case scenario for all involved is to simply float this trial balloon, and allow it to continue to float in the imaginations of the public. The alternative, of course, is to send that client out to provide the world some evidence, but this is usually fraught with danger, as what is considered funny by the loyalists and acolytes, that form the famous person’s entourage, may not play as well with those that don’t stand to benefit from believing that the person is funny.
We can probably guess that Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong had a softer, more playful side that left their entourage in stitches on occasion, and this may have led them to believe they had killer material that they couldn’t wait to display on the worldwide stage, until some bold adviser stepped forth to caution them against using such material on the worldwide stage. “I just have this feeling that most people will not find it acceptable to joke about the manner in which millions are slaughtered.” And we can be quite sure that the dictator disagreed with that adviser so vehemently that that adviser lost his life. The dictator eventually saw the light, however, and discovered the universal truth: Everyone has limitations. Some are accepted on the worldwide stage for their abilities to make people laugh, some gain fame and riches for their seriousness, and others have a gift for making people cry. The lesson that those of us that try to be all things to all people can take from murderous dictators is be who you are, learn your limitations, and try to succeed within that bubble.