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Becoming lost for words

As England braces itself for a second lockdown, Lulu Sinclair urges us all not to let conversation become a lost art

Have you ever been in that strange situation where you’re in full flow and you suddenly can’t find the word you wanted? You probably have. It’s quite normal…

Ironically our journey through life is full of words and connections, though in normal times we never really consider it. As parents, we long for babies to start talking then get very frustrated and tired when our darling toddlers and small children don’t stop. If we’re the offspring of elderly relatives, we can find it a combination of both annoying and heart-breaking when they start to speak … stop … hesitate … and then repeat themselves.

Fortunately, in our middle years, we tend to have a wide range of vocabulary to rely on so if we miss one word we can easily find another to replace it and the people we’re talking to need never notice the blip. Conversation is full of ums, errs, hesitations, pauses and, if you’re like me, lots of hand movement to indicate you know where you’re going even when you don’t.

Now it’s all a bit different. The clue is in the word “normal”. And we are most definitely not in normal times.

Lockdown is here again. The scientists running the government have decreed that we need to be kept at home once more and it seems the Government has been unable to resist their call. And so we go back to legally isolated.

You may detect a hint of sourness and you’d be right. I think the decision is wrong. I will comply but I will do it with resentment because the first lockdown was unsuccessful so I fail to see why the second will work. If you disagree, look at Scotland. It doesn’t seem to be working there either.

My chief concern continues to be about the effect such a move is going to have on us all. Others have warned about economic catastrophe so I don’t need to go into that, although I hope the warnings are wrong.

Instead I will concentrate on my fears for the individual.

I should be able to manage. I notice I am much, much angrier than I was last time but I still know I’m lucky. I have others in my immediate “social bubble” so I am not entirely alone. But many friends and others I know do not. They are alone. They live alone, they eat alone, they drink alone (much more than they used to) and, as time goes by, they are increasingly losing their voice. Literally.

I’ve noticed it in my more recent phone conversations with friends. A superficial chat is okay but then, as the conversation becomes more in depth and we have to go further inside our fantastic brains to find the words we require, they’re not as obviously available as they once were. We hesitate, laugh slightly nervously and say: “What’s the word I’m looking for?” as the other struggles to come up with it. Before March, we could have interjected with ease, probably finishing off the sentence if we’re talking to a very old friend.

Now, I’m as empty-headed as they are. Recently, I picked up the phone to telephone someone who I speak to every day. My fingers reached out to dial the number (I’m old school that way) and came to an abrupt stop. I could not remember their number. I could remember past numbers from former homes but there was a complete blank when it came to this number. It was as if an outside force had reached into the ginormous hook inside my brain where I usually stored the number and removed it. It was a full-on pause moment. Until that time, I had operated – as we all did – on auto-pilot in the same way that drivers do. If asked how to drive a car, it’s hard to remember the exact sequence of what we do and how we do it. All we know is that, when we get in the car, our brain records what we need to do to start up the engine and drive.

That is pretty much how we are with speech and with all the other incredible talents that go with us becoming adult human beings. We learn and we do and so it goes on throughout life. And it’s a miraculous process that we give very little thought to. Thank goodness for that. Otherwise, if we thought too much about how we functioned, we would have little time for the actual process of living.  

So back to the speech. Our leaders tell us to go out and take exercise, to shop for essentials and to do whatever it is they want us to do. What I have not heard them say is: “Don’t forget to take a moment to chat to your friends, read the papers, have conversations and practise your speech. It’s important that you keep using this learned behaviour. Otherwise, you might lose it.”

Indeed, we are told to wear masks (once again, I’m not going to argue for or against the ruling) but have you tried having a conversation with one of those covering your mouth? I find it hard. In fact, I don’t bother much. So, the limited but pleasant conversation I might have had with a shopkeeper no longer happens and I creep further inside myself.

I am hoping all this will go away soon but I worry that the scientists are enjoying their TV moments too much and may be reluctant to give up their powerful voice (yes, I’ve noticed they are ensuring they’re heard). As a powerless individual, until the next election at least, all I can do is work hard to ensure that my voice remains strong enough to be heard even if I’m only speaking to myself.

I’d urge you to do the same and make sure you track, trace and connect with all your friends in this position. Speak up and stay strong. Our individual well-being depends on it.

Photo credit: University of Nottingham

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Lulu Sinclair

Lulu is an experienced journalist who has worked in print, TV, radio and digital media. She retrained as a psychotherapist and counsellor some years ago and now combines both her passions. She writes a regular blog on mental health topics for a Harley Street psychotherapy practice.

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