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Say what you mean? Or mean what you say?

I've recently come to wonder about this saying "Say what you mean and mean what you say."  I probably started thinking thoughts slightly along this train back in high school, when I read Orson Scott Card's Ender series.  I believe it was in Xenocide (although I'm not sure) where Valentine has an interaction with a cripple where Card points out Valentine's very compassionate and empathetic value of responding to what people mean to say rather than the actual words they say.  Since that time, that's been one of my goals and I hope that I've made some progress in that area.  I believe it to be good wisdom.

But, it's only been recently that I've started to think that saying what you mean and meaning what you say aren't necessarily the same thing.  (Of course, from a logical perspective, this is immediately obvious since one is the converse of the other, so I should have known all along.)  The fact that they are not equal means that they can be satisfied independently or simultaneously.

The reason I've thought about this recently is because there are many phrases that I've picked up over the course of my life that I now find have placed me in a rather difficult situation.  One such saying is "God bless you."  This can actually be used in a variety of situations and can mean a whole range of things, depending on context.  When someone sneezes, it can be used as some sort of automatic response (usually as the abbreviated "bless you").  I suppose back in the day, it was believed that when you sneezed, your soul left the body, so if someone didn't bless you right away, the devil would take your soul.  I hope no one believes that anymore, but it does beg the question of why we still say it all the time.

But, there are many times when I want to say "God bless you" because it's the sentiment I'm trying to convey.  The problem with this is that I think it's a vacuous statement.  I don't think there is a god to do any blessing, so I don't think that any deity will be influenced (one way or the other) due to me uttering such a statement.  So, if I do say that phrase, it's not because I mean it.  What I mean is something (again, depending on context) along the lines of "You're a wonderful person", "Thank you", "I hope things get better for you" or some other such thing.  However, I'm at a loss as to whether I should actually say what I mean or to say what the other person will interpret as what I mean.  That is, if I'm speaking to a believer (which is to say, just about every person I know) then saying "God bless you" means (to them) what I mean to say to them.  Therefore, I'm not saying what I mean, but they are interpreting what I say as what I mean to say to them.

Another phrase is "I'll keep you in my prayers" (or some other variation).  When someone tells me something unfortunate that has happened in their life, I genuinely feel sorrow and have used this phrase in the past to express what I feel.  However, I really hesitate to say it now because I really truly won't pray for them.  But, at the same time, if I say "I'll pray for you", then they can have the comfort that comes to any believer when they hear that expression from a friend.  So, in this situation, I'm truly at a loss as to what I should say.  Personally, I think prayer is completely futile (having prayed and been prayed for countless times myself) but other people believe it to be helpful.  I want to portray the emotion that I will help out a friend (or family member) in need, but not be misleading or trite in saying that I'll pray for them.

So, there are lots of things that I've been in the habit of saying that I have examined more closely in the last couple months, trying to determine whether I really mean them and whether I should say them despite not meaning them.  I suppose one thing making it so difficult is that religion is so deeply ingrained in English that it's difficult to avoid.  It also makes me wonder what a purely secular language would be like.

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