Water landings, threats, and throwing bricks gently

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My father (probably not very originally) used to tell me, “If you have to throw a brick at someone, throw it gently.” That sounded pretty stupid to me at the time, but I’ve since learned that it’s actually pretty good advice. What he seemed to have meant was, “if you have to threaten, warn, or otherwise say anything negative, temper it as much as possible.” If he had known anything about the differences among the speech acts of threatening, warning, and advising, he might have elaborated a little more. His words were brought home to me by three recent events: (1) my work trying to make the letters written by the Montana Department of Revenue clearer and more respectful; (2) my emergency landing at the Salt Lake City airport; and (3) the recent “water landing” of the U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River.

Bureaucracies that try to collect money from deadbeat taxpayers probably need to throw their bricks sometimes, tossing in a severe warning about what bad stuff will happen to readers if they don’t comply. I’ve been trying to convince the agency that giving strong advice might do the job just as well and be a bit more respectful in the process. But the temptation is strong and I meet considerable resistance from the tax people who sometimes prefer to hurl dire warnings or threats. In some cases they may be right, but it’s common for some people to simply neglect or forget their tax obligations. In such cases, a gentle brick toss of advice may be appropriate, especially when we can’t tell a deadbeat from a disorganized and forgetful tax-payer.

The U.S. Airways’ water landing impressed me in another way. Like most frequent fliers, I cringe and suffer silently when the flight attendants recite their usually memorized instructions about emergency procedures — you know, the seat belts, the oxygen masks, the seat cushions used for floatation devices, and that dreaded euphemism, “in the unlikely event of a water landing.”

In my most recent air trip, we had to make an emergency landing in Salt Lake City, caused by a tire that blew apart as we took off from Missoula. The passengers clearly recognized that something was not right as we bumped down the runway taking off, but we thought less about it when we rose into the air. When we approached the Salt Lake airport, however, the fun began. The pilot calmly told us that we had indeed blown a tire and that we should now listen carefully to the flight attendant’s calm instructions. Now frightened, the passengers whimpered, prayed and dutifully practiced putting their heads between their legs to get ready for what might be a crash, all in an eerie silence. We hit the runway with a jarring bump, but the remaining tires held up and everyone clapped and cheered, despite the clearly visible omens of fire trucks and ambulances surrounding the plane.

Our plane didn’t have to make a “water landing,” and I still think the accurate description would be “water crash” or “ditch.” But flight attendants have to gently advise us, rather than to scare us out of our boots. Looking back on it all, I now can appreciate the ritual emergency instructions, euphemisms and all. We were scared enough without having to hear the words, “crash” or “ditch.” Anyway, like our skilled pilot in Salt Lake, that U.S. Airways pilot DID make a “water landing” in the Hudson River. And from what we read about the evacuation of the plane in the water, things were well under control. And I’m now a whole lot more appreciative of euphemisms than I used to be.

My father may have been right about throwing bricks gently after all.

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