El qué-dirán (The “What-Will-They-Say”)

The Spanish language boasts its own compound noun, composed of the question word “what” (qué) and the “they” form of the verb “to say” (“decir”), formulated in the future (“dirán”).  Today’s students grasp the concept of the “qué-dirán” in a blink of an eye, understanding the power of the looming “they,” the fear of the enigmatic “what,” and the social control implied by the “will say,” or the gossip.  This concept, which appears as a fundamental two-by-four in Spanish-language literature through the ages, affects us all and takes hold through the scaffolding of the social media networks.

Many people of my generation (50-somethings) comment on the challenge our children face in navigating social relationships. Of course, relationships among adolescents are often characterized by strife and heartbreak, as young people experience many emotions for the first time.  This hasn’t changed, but the social media environment has, increasing the number of people who form the “they” implied by “dirán,” the number of people who can engage in gossip and attempt to shape others’ behaviors.  Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that I don’t gossip.  We all do.

Before the social media era, nevertheless, wasn’t it already awkward and maybe even humiliating to be in fifth grade and find nowhere to sit in the lunchroom, or to be made fun of for an outfit you wore in seventh grade or a snorty laugh you emitted in eighth grade, or to find yourself in the midst of shifting friendships in ninth grade?  To have those moments and feelings constantly and repeatedly exposed on social media, rarely with your best interests at heart, must reinforce faltering self-esteem and imposed isolation on our children.  When I see mean posts and possibly even meaner shares, I am indignant on behalf of the person who was targeted, whether I know the person or not.  Even if meanness and snark are a part of growing up, and they definitely are, their amplification via social media certainly must be having its effect on the young people we love.

Friends’ and family members’ perceptions of us during adolescence contribute to our self-perception, I think for life.  What are the stories or phenomena of your childhood about which you’re still particularly sensitive?  I have two, neither of which is anyone’s fault, but each of which likely takes turns driving the car of my personality. (*Please see this “Loving People” post , which celebrates the many positive elements of my childhood.  I just realized that I wrote that piece one year ago. This time of year must have me reflecting on youth, love, and challenges.  Or maybe it’s moralizing May.)

The first formative element comes from inside the home, where I grew up as one of two girls in a family of seven children.  Busy days and crowded dinner tables made for some single-tracked conversations of which I (and probably my brothers and sister, too, at different times) often did not feel a part.  The single focus and the resultant lack of variety in conversation topics made me hunger to learn everything I could about other things when I was at school and/or on my own.  I still love the family conversations we had (often sprinkled with hilarious word play and almost always demonstrating profound affection), and I still love sports—part of my training—but I definitely like embarking upon deep conversations about other parts of our lives. My husband’s family was steeped in Philadelphia politics, a hot topic at their home, and those conversations, along with the lack of fear of disagreement or discord, appealed to me tremendously when I first started hanging out at their house.

The second item about which I’m still sensitive arose mostly outside the home.  At home, my parents, sister, and brothers expressed frequent and generous praise about my interests and endeavors (how lucky to have been surrounded by people who took a genuine interest, despite all I just said above about our conversational compass).  My parents also imposed what some would deem a militaristic discipline: up early; get to school; work hard; go to practice and work hard; come home, eat dinner, do chores; do homework; practice the instrument (generously provided by public school education); no television; go to bed.  On the weekends and in the summer, there was no lounging around in bed and there was always a list of chores prepared for each person.  We had a lot of fun, too, constantly playing and making up games and interacting with our siblings’ friends.  The ethos of the house was definitely “work hard, play hard,” and the work always came first.  This is how we were raised and what we were taught to expect and respect, and I think each of us kids brought it to much of what we did, and certainly into our adult work lives.

Therefore, when, especially in middle school, but also in high school, classmates decided my good grades were a result of hard work and no missed school days (ah, how I remember the ignominy of getting the perfect attendance award along with the highest grade award in 7th grade), I was unsettled in a way I couldn’t articulate until later.  At the time, I did not know how to analyze these comments, and I mostly left them alone. Later, though, I thought defensively, “I do work hard, but I’m also kind of smart, I think.”  It was a weird moment when I realized I had to defend working hard and assert that some academic skills came naturally to me.  I didn’t go around saying these things, but I learned to confront the strange criticism that someone who works hard must not also be intelligent.  Working hard to me meant, and still means, that I am serious about the endeavor before me, there are things I don’t know, there are talents I can bring to the project, and the hard work might bring joy and passion.  Hard work and working hard also mean that we occasionally learn to think more critically about social justice, effecting change, and being in the trenches with others who are willing to do the same.

My husband works incredibly hard and is a sophisticated thinker, passionate about what he does and says.  His strong personality makes him a force for positive change. (Hey, wait, have I been writing too many letters of recommendation this month?) My husband just recently told me, for the first time in our 26-year relationship, that he also was marked by the “you’re not smart; you just work hard” criticism leveled at him through grade school and high school. We hope that our children, whose work habits have been dictated by us but also cultivated by them, haven’t inherited this criticism, that they haven’t been the object of similar comments.

I leave you with two points today.  Social media make everything more complicated.  There is much to be learned in hard work—actual information and skills, collaboration, passion.

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