The power of words

writing

The ability to learn language always amazes me. Given a supportive environment most young children will learn the language of the home effortlessly; forming their own hypotheses about its use and very quickly understanding the complexities of language structures and nuances of meaning.

I am also impressed by the fluency and comprehension of many for whom English is not their first language. I briefly touched on some of the difficulties experienced even by users of English as a first language in a previous post about spelling.  Sometimes I wonder that communication is possible at all, especially when considering local idioms and sayings that make little sense out of context, but largely go unnoticed. What must a new speaker of English  think when encountering “Bite the bullet, break the ice, butter someone up, or even bring a plate”.

How difficult it must be too, when words, like vice for example, have multiple meanings.

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills has been talking about vice. Her article is about the not-so-pleasant type of vices. As usual, I like to be the contrarian and consider alternative viewpoints. That might be considered one of my vices. Sometimes I laugh when a thought takes me to a context far away from a speaker’s intended message. Other times I fail to see the intended humour, reading beneath the surface intent to hidden messages.

To illustrate this I will use two recent examples:

bicycle

The cyclist and the flight attendant

He: a cyclist, just entering the last third of his life (about 60, give or take 5 years)

As his bike was being loaded onto the plane he explained that he had ridden from Alice Springs to Uluru, the long way. (I’m not sure of the distance of the long way, but the direct way would be more than long enough for me!)

Alice Springs to Uluru

She: a flight attendant still in the first third of her life (about 25, give or take 5 years)

“That’s so awesome! I hope I continue to exercise all my life.”

I didn’t hear his response; I was laughing too hard: the innocence and blindness of youth. How well I remember thinking anyone over about thirty was at death’s door. What amuses me now is the number of people my age who think we are much younger than those of the previous generation at the same age. I think the blindness and selective sight continues throughout life.

Of course I interpreted her words to mean: “You’re so old. I can’t believe you could do that. I hope I can still exercise when I am as old as you!”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The joy of fatherhood?

Waiting for the same flight was a father and his daughter, approximately two and a half years of age. The daughter was doing what any child of that age would do: looking around, exploring a short distance away from dad before returning to his side. From what I could see she was doing no harm and was perfectly safe. It was a small airport, she could not wander far.

Each time she moved away he barked a short command at her. Although his words were not familiar to me, I had no difficulty interpreting them. As with most children, sometimes she heeded them, sometimes she didn’t. Sometimes he repeated the command, or retrieved the child. Sometimes he didn’t.

Then I saw his t-shirt and read the word emblazoned on the front. I am a reader. Sometimes I wish I were not. The words read, “Guns don’t kill people, Dads of daughters do”.

I have never “got” the need for messages on apparel, and definitely not a message as negative as this. I assume it was meant to be amusing, but I could see no humour in it. Maybe he didn’t understand the message underlying the words (he was speaking in a language other than English). Maybe I read too much into it. Apparently though, according to this Google search, there is a sizable market for shirts and products extolling these sentiments, some even with the inclusion of the word “pretty”.

My interpretation of the subliminal message is one of acceptance of a number of vices, and my belief is that until we can obliterate the insidiousness of messages such as these from the common psyche, our society won’t much improve. To me the message commends: disrespect for others, sexism, murder, violence, antagonistic relationships between parent and child/father and daughter, an absence of nurturing, an acceptance that children are difficult and a burden . . .

Perhaps I should stop there. I think this father and daughter team would be prime candidates for the early learning caravan project I wrote about recently. I would love to help this father see, not only the power in his words, but the treasure his daughter is and the importance of their relationship.

As I’ve explained, I sometimes see humour in words where it’s not intended, and fail to see it where it is. I’ve attempted to include humour in my flash response to Charli’s challenge to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a vice, by using three different meanings of the word. I’ll be interested to know if my “humour” matches yours, but won’t be surprised if it doesn’t!

This one is definitely not about Marnie!

 

Vice-captain

She almost danced along the verandah. What would it be: medal, certificate, special recommendation?

The door was open but she knocked anyway.

“Come in.” The command was cold. A finger jabbed towards a spot centre-floor.

Confused, her eyes sought the kindness of the steel blue pair, but found a vice-like stare.

She obeyed.

“In one week you have led the team on a rampage:

Smashing windows

Uprooting vegetables

Leaving taps running

Graffiting  the lunch area . . .

We thought you were responsible. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“But sir,” she stammered, “You made me vice-captain!”

 

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.

34 thoughts on “The power of words

  1. Sherri

    Loved your flash Norah, you had me there with the punch line as I had no idea where it was going at first. Great play on words, which is very much your style and also ties in so well with your preamble. I learnt here from another of your posts what ‘bring a plate’ means!
    And you can imagine how it was when I moved to America. It took me years before I figured out that ‘half and half’ is the same as single cream!
    As for the father’s t shirt slogan, I’m with you in that I have never understood the need to wear clothing emblazoned with messages, much less with ‘gun humour’ scrawled across them. I would be offended by this one as I think it’s plain ignorant, even though I’m sure it was meant as a ‘joke’ but as with you Norah, it’s a joke I don’t get. Guns are a hot topic in America right now so I think this is plain inflammatory. Hunting (although not for me) and shooting (as in Charli’s hub who is a shootist and as in my middle boy who is a crack shot and represented his Army Cadet troop in a shooting competition some years ago) is one thing, and I do like Charli’s example which made me smile, but using the words ‘gun’ and ‘kill’ on a t shirt as a father with his young daughter, to me, is utterly irresponsible. Didn’t Charlton Heston say, as one time president of the NRA, say ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people’? Charli will put me right with this one if I’ve got it wrong. So this t shirt message is obviously a play on that. ‘Nuff said…
    And as for age, I remember telling my mum when she turned 40 when I was 16, “Never mind Mum, you know what they say about life beginning at 40!” but secretly thinking that I didn’t think I would make it that far. When I did, I was stunned!! Now I’m 55 and grateful 😀 Love how you make us think and I also love your cute photos, that little girl is adorable.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your lovely reply, Sherri. I’m pleased you enjoyed the flash. Funny how you mention ‘half and half’ and ‘single cream’. I’m not familiar with either of those two terms! In the words of another famous Australian redhead, “Please explain”.
      I have been very interested to read all the responses to the t-shirt slogan. I think each of us has taken a slightly different slant. I certainly didn’t like the idea of parent, child, gun and kill loaded onto the same shirt. I do hope Charli can give us a little more explanation. The right to bear arms is not legal here. (I don’t even like to bare my arms!)
      Yay! I’m pleased you made it to 55! There is still a long way to go. You’re just a spring chicken in my books! 🙂 (Now I wonder how many interpretations of that saying there will be!)
      And that little girl was very adorable. She is just as adorable now as a young woman. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Sherri

        Haha…well, it seems we’ll have to ask Irene that, she will know from her English hubby as I haven’t a clue what single cream is called in Australia!!
        The right to bear arms isn’t legal here either Norah. The only people who had guns when I was growing up were farmers or those in special shooting clubs. It was a shock to see in recent times, cops walking around airports with loaded machine guns. But of course, we are wading into the world of terrorism now…What happened to the Bobby in the streets keeping an eye on things, bearing nothing but a truncheon? Well, those days are gone sadly.
        Haha…yes, I like being a spring chicken!!! And I can see a definite family resemblance Norah…so I am not surprised that the darling little girl is the adorable woman she is today 🙂

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        1. Norah Post author

          Ah the Bobby and the truncheon. Our police officers carry guns now too. I’m not sure when that started, or if they always did. It’s not a reassuring sight. Have a good weekend. 🙂

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          1. Sherri

            A different world isn’t it? Thanks Norah, we had a lovely weekend in London! Saw a show about The Kinks 🙂 Hope you had a good weekend too and I’ll now be catching up…again!!

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            1. Norah Post author

              Thank you Sherri. I seem to be falling further and further behind. I think that’s because there’s always more to do! The list never diminishes. I’m pleased you had a good weekend. Was the show about The Kinks a tribute show? They had/have some great music.

              Liked by 1 person

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              1. Sherri

                And here I am only just now replying to you 5 days later as if to prove that point…where does the time go? I haven’t blogged since last Thursday having been away and it feels like a month!!! The Kinks’ show was more a musical to tell their story as well as featuring a lot of their most popular songs. If you liked their music Norah, you would love the show. I hope you had a lovely weekend even though it is now Tuesday… 🙂

                Liked by 1 person

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                1. Norah Post author

                  And now Wednesday! But that’s okay, Sherri. Good friendships last through absences. They don’t need to be in constant communication to flourish. I hope you feel the same! 🙂
                  I enjoyed the weekend, and now it’s almost time for another. I hope your week is going well. 🙂

                  Liked by 1 person

                  Reply
  2. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Great flash Norah. Very funny. It does bring home just how easy it is to have a communication breakdown and we all speak English. I too read the T shirt as “anybody that hurts my daughter will have me to deal with” and I’ve heard numerous fathers voice that kind of sentiment as little girls seem to bring out the protective instinct (in reality it is probably because they know what they were like themselves when younger.)
    I can remember asking a friend’s daughter whether she thought I looked old (when I was about 36) and stunned that she said yes. It is all relative.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Irene, I’m pleased you enjoyed the flash.
      It is interesting to hear your interpretation of the shirt slogan too. There have been a variety. I wonder what the original author’s intention was. I’m sure one of us has hit the mark! While I agree with the protective instinct you comment on (and probably the reason for it!) I think there may be other ways of putting it across. Can’t think of one just now. I’m still not quite sure I see the need to advertise it on a t-shirt.
      Age is definitely relative! When I was in my early thirties I used to tell the children in my class that I was 99. They believed me. Why wouldn’t they? I was their teacher, after all. As I got older I stopped telling it as they REALLY believed me! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        I agree. Reference to guns is unnecessary and there has been so many mass killings in the states where virtually anybody can have guns. I am glad our access to weapons is limited – the number of deaths has significantly dropped as a result.
        I had to laugh at your description of your class reaction to your age. Still has me giggling.

        Liked by 1 person

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  3. Pingback: Pot-Smoking & Other Tales of Vice « Carrot Ranch Communications

  4. Sarah Brentyn

    Silly girl! Fun twist on that flash. 😀 Only you, Norah. That’s great.

    I have to say that I agree with Anne and Geoff that the shirt didn’t bother me as much as it maybe should have. I’ve seen SO much worse — maybe that’s the problem. Also, it’s weird but your mention of the inclusion of the word “pretty” in some of those same shirts bothered me more. I grew up with dads like that (one dad in particular who was a total, utter, complete sweetheart and all-around lovely man) who happened to have three daughters. One was my best friend and she had two little sisters. This reminds me of a shirt he would have worn.

    I think it’s context because I do not find gun humor funny. It’s not funny to to me at all to joke about guns or killing people. I’m actually easily offended by stuff like that, usually. But I think the shirt Charli mentions is quite hilarious.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Sarah. I’m pleased you enjoyed the flash; and you’re right, it probably is only me! 🙂
      Another take on the shirt. It is really interesting the different interpretations and offense ratings. I have definitely seen worse. Mostly I try to avoid reading them, but not reading is something I find quite difficult to do. I definitely didn’t like inclusion of the word ‘pretty’ either, but that’s because I was already thinking of it in sexist terms, and it seemed that perhaps the non-pretty daughters didn’t matter.
      Seems most of us non-US residents are anti-guns, so it will be interesting if Charli shares her thoughts on the subject with us. I agree that the shirt slogan she mentioned was funnier and less offensive, probably even to the bears! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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  5. Bec

    The FF is very funny! I laughed out loud, thanks for the giggle. I agree that the shirt is distasteful. My interpretation is that the father is a protective parent, and would shoot other people in defense of his daughter. Perhaps predicated on fatherly love, it’s a pretty nasty message. And I don’t like it. Like you, I dislike the normalisation of violence in society, particularly in children’s entertainment. I loathe children’s fiction which is based on fighting – solving problems by fighting a ‘baddie’ and so on. It’s revolting.

    The exchange on the plane, too, is very amusing. The various interpretations of language reminds me when our Bob (for the sake of others this is my father/Norah’s husband) asked ‘when does you next cycle start?’. I stared at him with shock for a moment until he clarified ‘next billing cycle for your mobile phone plan’. Awkward

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Bec, I’m glad you enjoyed the flash. You don’t always ‘get’ my humour! 🙂
      Another interpretation of the t-shirt slogan. I think each person commenting has “read” it a slightly different way. I’m not sure if, from an advertising point of view, that is a good or a bad thing. I think so far we are equally divided about its offense factor. Like you I object to the normalization of violence in our society and the acceptance of it as a way of solving problems.
      I agree, the question asked of you was a little out of character for your father. Here is a goodie I heard on the news on the way home tonight: the petty criminals had been dealt with but “Mr Big was still at large”! Hilarious! Who writes this stuff?
      Thanks for adding your voice to the discussion. 🙂

      Like

      Reply
  6. TanGental

    such an intriguing post. I am a little with Anne in that I didn’t see the bad side in the slogan, though I dislike parents who only bark at children. Language is curious and how it is ripe for misuse and misconstruction. And you flash was, by common consent, excellent. I didn’t see the end and am smiling a I type. Prize winning stuff, Nor.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Geoff. I am delighted that the flash worked. As I have said in many responses, I wasn’t sure that it would. I often end up laughing alone at something ridiculous that nobody else sees. I was listening to the news on the way home tonight and one of the reports said that though some of the petty criminals had been dealt with, “Mr Big was still at large”! Who writes this stuff?
      There have been a few different interpretations of the t-shirt slogan, which goes to prove that each reader brings their own thoughts and experiences to any text. I guess I saw it as a reflection of the parent/child relationship rather than to guns specifically. I also saw it as a sexist comment, identifying girls as being more difficult to parent, particularly when the word ‘pretty’ was added. I guess I have lots of discussions about gender issues with my family and the impact of society’s attitudes upon their little daughter.
      Anyway, glad you enjoyed it, and that the message of my flash was not misconstrued!

      Liked by 1 person

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  7. macjam47

    I agree that our idioms would be a giant hurdle when someone is learning English. Phrases such as “break a leg” could be very confusing to a new student of the English language. I have to admit, I’ve never heard “bring a plate.” LOL, You could end up with a lot of empty plates and little food.

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  8. Annecdotist

    I studied language development as part of my degree and it was fascinating. (Just don’t try to test me on it!)
    I LOVED your flash – such a clever take on the prompt. Didn’t see that ending coming but it fits perfectly.
    Interestingly, I didn’t immediately see the T-shirt message as threatening – I actually saw it as an anti-gun slogan as in saying it’s not “other people” that do the damage when there are guns around, but really nice people, including dads of daughters. But in the context of a father who could only bark at his daughter to tell her what not to do, it WAS quite disturbing. But in another setting, I’m not so sure.
    Gosh, the American commitment to the right to bear arms seems so foreign over here. I think it’s something that separates the cultures far more than idiosyncrasies in our use of language.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on all these issues, Anne. I seem to have done it again: made a comment with thoughts heading in one direction, and it gets picked up and taken in another, or two. Makes it all very interesting. I’m delighted, but surprised.
      Thanks for your comment on my flash. I’m pleased you enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure if it would work. Others don’t always see humour in the things that I do!
      Your seeing the t-shirt as an anti-gun slogan is interesting. Charli saw it as pro-gun. It just goes to show that what each reader brings to the text influences what they take away from it: their understanding and interpretation. Until I read the second part of the statement I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I definitely thought it was pro-gun. It is not like, but made me think of news reports that tell us a car lost control and hit a tree or a pedestrian . . . I always think “a car can’t lose control, a car isn’t in control, a driver is – or should be’. I do understand your interpretation of the slogan but am struggling to accept it (the slogan) as a good one.
      I agree with you about the right to bear arms feeling foreign. For once that foreign feeling is a good one. Perhaps you are right in saying that this difference may be a more important one than quirky pronunciations and spellings.
      Thank you for giving me more to ponder, as usual.

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  9. Ula

    Norah, I much prefer your type of humor to the examples you provided above. That last line made me laugh. What made it funnier was the first two sentences. She was sure she was doing what was expected of her.
    I remember being in my teens and twenties and having a very different experience of age than now (in my thirties). I never believed as the young woman above that old age meant anything. I always thought life started after 30 and had many older friends. I remember being 21 and having a friend who was 51. She was having more fun and enjoying life much more than I was at the time. She also had more energy. Age is only a limitation in our heads. What I find most unbelievable is how much people limit themselves because of age. I cannot do this, I shouldn’t do that. That is not appropriate. I’m too old for this. I see it especially prevalent here in Poland. Many people over the age of 50 feel that life is pretty much over for them, and what’s interesting is that people age quicker here. I think it’s all about attitude.
    I often hear that I look younger than my age, but I see my friends from the US on Facebook and they look similar to me. I don’t think it’s the drinking water ;), I think it’s all about attitude. People my age in the US are still discovering themselves, learning, exploring life. In Poland, most people my age are settled down and many just are. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions, especially women.
    Gosh, I’m getting long again.
    I don’t get gun humor, although Charli’s t-shirt is funny. That’s my kind of humor.
    I grew up in Chicago, where I saw the evil of gun ownership. I am a pacifist and against the 2nd amendment for those reasons. I saw kids killing kids, innocent people (children included) shot because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time (like their living room, which faced the street and there happened to be a drive by shooting). I know limiting gun possession will not eradicate violence and gangs. Chicago had stricter gun laws than other cities. Attaining firearms within the city was more difficult than in the rest of the state or other states. It changed nothing. (I write in the past tense, because I know laws have changed, but I don’t know how much or in what ways.)
    I now live in a society where gun possession in not easy. I feel much safer. Yes, it is a much smaller city than Chicago. Chicago has so many problems that other cities do not, I am aware.
    Maybe I am an idealist, but I believe (not naively) that love, compassion, cooperation could do so much for this world. Anything that leads to division does not help peace. Owning firearms and this feeling of entitlement many Americans have leads to division. Guns give people this false sense of power. It’s a scary thing.
    I am a total hippy.
    Going back to humor. Some time ago, my husband took me to see a play that was supposed to be a comedy. I think I was the only one not laughing and completely disgusted with the humor. It was a parody of American westerns that had a man who had blackface named uncle Tom. There were religious gunslingers and made other cliches. It was the worst play I had ever seen. It made me feel sick. Yet, everyone around me was laughing.
    Sorry to get so long on you, but you cover so many interesting topics. The flash was great. I enjoyed it immensely.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you so much for the depth and detail of your response, Ula.
      I’m so pleased you enjoyed the flash. I wasn’t sure if it would work or not, thought it might be a bit ‘corny’.
      I love what you have said about age. It is definitely only a limitation in our heads. I have an uncle I admire very much. He has had a hard life: was a prisoner of war in Changi; lost his first wife to breast cancer in 1972, long before the effective treatments we have access to today; his policeman son was shot and killed by a drug-crazed criminal in 2002. But he has lived a long, happy and active life. He turned 99 earlier this month and is still active and alert, living at home; an inspiration to all of us.
      Like you I appreciate living in a country where gun possession is not easy. I wish we could all be pacifists and have no need for weapons. Love, compassion and cooperation are definitely ideals I share with you. I agree with you, too, that the t-shirt slogan mentioned by Charli is more humorous than the one I spotted.
      And as for humour, I think I’d be sitting in the theatre alongside you, unsmiling; or maybe I’d be getting up and walking out. I wonder how many others were caught up in the laughter but didn’t really find it funny. Sometimes the humour is only on the surface, it is only when we look deeper, which I know you did, that the real message becomes apparent. Not enough people seek out the meaning of the hidden messages, nor realise the gravity of the messages they appear to support with their laughter. I’m pleased you do.
      Thank you for sharing. 🙂

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  10. Charli Mills

    That is funny! Basically, “but you made me in charge of the vices”! 🙂 I had to look up vice, though to fully appreciate all three uses (as in the original use of vice-captain). A few other definitions I wasn’t aware of. Glad you refrained from those.

    Words convey meaning, yet as you point out we don’t always perceive the same meaning. Living in northern Idaho I’m well-acquainted with the gun-related territorial signs, bumper stickers and t-shirts. I had not seen that particular message before, but I’m sure it is out there. I’ve often warned the Hub that if those who support their firearms rights (as we do) let these zealous advocates mouth off with messages like that, we will lose credibility for why we support the 2nd Amendment (in part, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms). For a humorous aside, I have seen a t-shirt that reads, “I support the right to arm bears.” That’s humor which isn’t threatening.

    A thought-provoking read as usual! Thanks!

    Liked by 4 people

    Reply
    1. Norah Post author

      Now I’m wondering what other definitions you found! And where? The use of ‘vice’ to mean deputy has always amused me, so I just had to use that in my flash. I’m pleased it worked – a bit of an Amelia Bedelia “literal” twist.
      I think we are rather fortunate in Australia to have fairly strict gun laws. I guess if you grow up in a country in which people are allowed to carry firearms, then you become used to it; it is your environment; your reality. However I think I would probably feel a little uncomfortable and unsafe if I thought I was surrounded by people carrying concealed (or not) weapons. After reading your response this morning and understanding the t-shirt slogan from another perspective I did some quick Google research to try to find out about guns laws around the world and deaths by firearms. Didn’t have a lot of time, but Japan seems to have the most strict laws and lowest rate of ownership; the US one of the highest.
      I remember my Dad owning a rifle and some of my uncles too. My uncles had large properties, thousands of acres in area, for raising cattle and sheep and were, and still are, allowed to have firearm permits. My Dad used his for shooting kangaroos mainly. Firearm permits are still available for hunters. But thankfully most people are not able to obtain either permits or guns. I feel safer that way. There are certainly people who wish the situation was otherwise, and there have been a number of shooting incidents here over recent years, even with our gun laws. I would be interested to know your reasons for supporting the right of people to keep and bear arms. I am probably most (but even so, not very) familiar with Charlton Heston’s stance. I always thought he was a bit extreme, so would love to know yours. It may help me understand the situation a little more.
      The thought of arming bears is definitely more humorous. They may prefer to be on the giving, rather than the receiving, end too!
      Thank you for sharing your perspective. It is through open discussion we are able to develop understanding.

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