In pioneer days, when times were hard and the average life span was 37 years, saying what you wanted was good. It was a requisite for survival. Settlers had to be focused, decisive, and make the right choices, just like the contestants on American Idol, except there was no video recap of your "journey" and the grand prize was a contract for 160 acres of Osage land.
Nowadays, with life expectancy exceeding 75, our lifestyle expectancy has soared as well. Higher expectations translate into serious want-flation. And with that, for some people—many of them women—comes guilt-flation. Certainly guilt-flation is a learned behavior. Small children have no compunctions about saying, even shrieking, what they want. At a critical point, though—third grade, fourth grade, fifth—the shame of wanting sets in.
An unusually wise friend with a teenager and a grade-schooler ponders the different want styles of her kids. "When we go shopping, my younger child knows exactly what he wants and is extremely vocal about it. But my older one can never say what she wants. How do I make her realize that you have to say what you want in order to receive it? When a person can articulate what she wants, it motivates others to give it to her."
Somewhere between the Homestead Act and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, articulating your wants went from being a wardrobe basic to an embarrassing accessory, like control-top underwear or Odor-Eaters. Plain Want evolved into Wanty.
Hence, we stifle yawp and dissent, ensuring unstirred pots, unsplintered peace. When a friend makes a plan to see a movie that conceivably patented the gag reflex, we decide not to make heavy weather of it. In candor's stead, we coax, cozen, and imply; we cloak our language in e-mail and conversation so we don't appear too blunt, too aggressive, too demanding. We either submerge our wants or present them in such a veiled, indirect fashion they confuse and annoy.
"Just for fun," says my visiting mother-in-law, a midcentury minimalist before she hit her mid-70s, that magical age when pastel birdhouses and gilt frames suddenly seem like a good idea, "let's throw out all your paperback books."
Wow, that doesn't sound very fun to me. We actually read our paperback books. It also sounds like a lot of work. Still, one would be prudent not to fly in the face of the filio mater too hastily. "Do you dislike the way they look?" I ask. "Do you want me to throw them out?"
"No, no—let's just see what happens," she replies. "I thought it would be a nice thing to do for you."
"So, does that mean you don't want me to throw them out?"
"No." And now the conversation takes a flinty turn. "As I said, I thought we could throw them out, just [pause] for [pause] fun."
If only she could come right out and exclaim, "Those shabby paperbacks are an embarrassment to the family name!" If only she would flatly state, "This isn't about you, it's about me and my aesthetic values and my desire to regulate my surroundings." If only she could chisel through the shale sheets of Anglo-Saxon breeding and skip the Cheever-ized buck-and-wing so we could have a straightforward conversation.