Vasily Perov, The Hunters at Rest, 1871.
Many agree that our language is coarsening. We curse more, insult each other with impunity, and speak like illiterate cats on a regular basis. But in one way, things are improving: it’s been a good ten years since I heard anyone say “Guess you had to be there.”
When I was a teenager, people said this constantly. Someone would tell a well-meaning anecdote, something he considered amusing or interesting—then some jerk would fill the silence with, “Guess you had to be there.” The jerk always waited until the story in question was over. And, yes, oftentimes the stories were lame, and not worth telling, and a waste of everyone’s time. But whoever was telling that story was putting himself out there, in a certain small way, and, in an equally small way, being beaten down.
Telling a story takes confidence. You have to believe people will care. You need the patience to pace it properly and the self-assurance to know you’re worthy of holding the floor. For every bore who tells long-winded anecdotes there are probably ten people with better stories to tell who do not dare.
And why do these people stay silent? Maybe, back in high school, someone told them, “Guess you had to be there.” Maybe they felt dismissed and stupid and valueless. As teenage traumas go, it’s not the worst—and dismissiveness is an important element of the adolescent arsenal—but I’m glad I’m not there anymore.
Addendum: if you, the narrator, are attempting to tell a story and a listener is persistently refusing to let you finish, asking irritating preemptive follow-up questions that would be answered in due time if they just shut up, or willfully refusing to see the point—well, then, you are completely within your rights to say “Guess you had to be there,” in a chilling and martyred way. But this is completely different.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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