Air Quote Me

Years ago, an acquaintance was telling me about a conversation he'd just had with a disagreeable client. While speaking, he raised both hands in peace signs. Then, inexplicably, he twitched his fingers and overemphasized the word "partnership." At first I thought he was having some sort of strange, Tourette's-like spasm. Now I know I'd just witnessed my first air quote.After my initial reaction -- What the hell is he doing with his hands? -- I realized that this poor man's sense of sarcasm was in its infancy, and his hand-twitching was the equivalent of training wheels for the sophisticated-discourse challenged. Had he no confidence? Did he think his delivery was that poor? Or did he think I was too thick to get it? Whatever the answer, I determined quickly that he was not someone I wanted to upgrade from acquaintance level.I didn't realize it at the time, but that twitch I had just witnessed was a death spasm of sophisticated discourse itself. Air quotes, like cell phones and e-mail, have become an indispensable tool in our communication arsenal; without them, many are rendered incapable of sarcasm, double-entendre, or any of the other post-ironic devices that have been used by the great speakers, writers, and thinkers of history.What if Shakespeare had directed his actors to include air quotes in the line "To 'be' or not to 'be' "? Imagine if, as we peered into our tiny black-and-white television sets in 1969, Neil Armstrong had lifted up the arms of his bulky space suit, two gloved fingers extended on each hand, and uttered those famous words: "That's one small 'step' for man, one giant 'leap' for mankind"? What if John F. Kennedy, addressing the German people from the shadows of the newly built Berlin Wall, had finger-twitched his way through "Ich bin ein 'Berliner' "? Would their words have lived on? I sure as hell hope not.Thank God there was no television when FDR gave his famous "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" speech. Today, that one line would provoke so many air quotes, he'd go airborne.There has been only one time in recent memory when air quotes would have come in handy. Bill Clinton should have said, "I did not 'have sex' with that woman." Think of all the national handwringing we would have been spared. (Of course, then Monica probably wouldn't have landed the Jenny Craig gig, so I guess things worked out for the best.) Love him or hate him, but our president knows the power of sarcasm, irony, and euphemism; wisely, he counted on a complete lack of similar knowledge in the mind of the average American. Silly, literal us.Since witnessing my first air quote, I have observed several grassroots efforts to eradicate them (a moral duty, incidentally, that we all share). I had a boss at one of my first jobs out of college who imposed an air-quote ban on our staff. Each air quote cost a dollar; two if it was used in a meeting.It was the best policy he ever instituted. Bound by these fines, some co-workers were rendered incapable of making a point, and many were stripped of their ability to use euphemisms, malapropisms, or any other figures of speech. Meetings got real short after that. Several people resorted to sitting on their hands. Memos became the preferred method of communication.This effort, like similar ones that came before it, was too little and too late. Alas, the need for specificity, clarity, and efficiency has trumped the need for cleverness, erudition, and the sheer joy that a sneaky, unexpected, well-camouflaged ironic twist can provide. We are becoming a nation of literalists. The boom in e-mail usage has exacerbated the problem -- people risk getting fired if a sarcastic turn of phrase in an e-mail is missed or taken too literally, which it most assuredly will be.E-mail addicts have even coined their own version of air quotes, specifically for electronic correspondence. They're called "emoticons," and they're the little smiley or frowny faces made out of punctuation marks that people stick on the ends of their sentences as yet another reminder to literalists that they are just kidding ;-). I prefer to call them moronicons.I fear that the air-quote epidemic is only the beginning of the downward trajectory of verbal communication. What's next? More air punctuation? When people are particularly emphatic about something, will they end their sentences by swiping their hands in a sharp downward motion, followed by an index-finger stab to create an exclamation point? Will people who are pausing for theatrical effect feel the need to insert an ellipsis visually -- three short stabs of the index finger -- so everyone will know that they aren't done talking yet? Will people one day start using air quotes at the beginning and end of every word they utter, so that we, the literalist listeners, will be absolutely certain that they are talking?To some extent, I'm as guilty as the next person when it comes to overuse of punctuation. A quick glance through my previous writing in this fine publication reveals an overabundance of slightly unnecessary quotation marks, commas, and dashes (and that was after the editor got at it). I am vowing here and now to clean up my act on that front. Air quotes, however, are another matter. I don't use them, and I never will, and I don't care if people don't catch it when I'm being sarcastic. Maybe if more people stopped spoon-feeding the subtext of every word to those around them, the general level of discourse would rise to levels not seen in ... well, a really long time. But until that happens, I should warn you: anyone who uses an air quote within 20 feet of me had better make sure I don't have a pair of scissors handy, or else they might wind up living a life full of air parentheses.

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