Clean car, Dirty Words

As I sat happily the other day in our family station wagon at the best auto-wash in town (hint: West Seventh near Famous Dave’s) for reasons that will soon become obvious, I recalled the intriguing family ritual of a research participant in one of my studies a few years ago.

Yes, the ritual had to do with a car wash. But remembering it this day had more to do with the emails I browsed while the water drenched (actually, attacked!) my pollen-covered car. In those emails were hints of the intense emotions felt by so many of us on campus this time of year: What will I do when I graduate? Why are all the classes I want next year filled already? Do I really want to be a ____ major? How will I finish all of the papers my darn professors have assigned in the next four weeks? How can I get all those papers graded? Are my students really learning anything?

It was precisely those types of emotion-laden questions that reminded me how much I adore the woman who came up with a way to use her family’s time in the car wash for something much more than shinin’ up their vehicle. Her story is really about the great responsibilities (and, yes, plain old fun) of us oft-emotional and always-human communicators.

What’s the story? The mom explains that when her children were at the age when they were starting to pick up on swear words, she had an out-of-the-blue idea one day while waiting in line for the car wash. Turning to her kids happily buckled in the back seat, she instructed them: As soon as we're in the car wash, you can say and/or shout as many swear words as you wish. But, and this is key: when we emerge, no swearing. Ever. Not when you’re mad. Not when you’re hurt. Not when you simply feel like expressing strong emotions. Not when you want to impress someone. You must save such expressions for the only appropriate time and place: our next trip through the wash.

At first, she explains, the kids were dead silent in the back seat, probably wondering if she was serious. Then, to her delight, one of them tried out a rather mild word. No reaction from mom. In rapid succession and then all at once, each kid began saying as many swear words as he or she knew (Yikes: who knew they had so much knowledge of so many “bad” words!) But they all stopped once the water ceased and the door lifted. From that day forward, that family uses the car wash as a time, place and space in which to cleanse themselves of the intense words and emotion they might wish (but choose not to) express at other times.

Creative, practical and proactive, don't you agree? I thought so. And so much so that I shared the story with my BFF one day soon thereafter as we discussed our growing children. Before I knew it, she tried it out. During her next trip to the car, with her six-year-old son looking at her from the backseat clearly wondering: “Has my mom lost her mind?” he quickly gave her the okay-if-you-insist-look from the backseat and said “Ship.” “Ship!” “Ship!!” “SHIP!!!”

Ah, the age of innocence.

And ah, what a poignant and larger lesson in these stories, eh? What if we all reminded ourselves that as we communicate with the many other humans in our lives (friends, roommates, professors, people walking by, acquaintances, bosses, peers, strangers, customer-service folks and, of course, our family – kids, partners, spouses, siblings, parents and sisters/brothers), that we should, could and can check our “messages.” Our tone. Our choices. Our context. What if we quickly (it takes about four seconds) asked ourselves before we send an email, whip off a text message, respond to another’s actions or make a statement: What is my motive? Who is my audience? How might I be perceived? What are the possible responses? Is there a better context in which to express myself?

Give it a thought. And/or, get a car wash. On Tuesdays (corner of West Seventh and Montreal in St. Paul), all washes are just five bucks. Want a private, in-car expression of intense emotion? It’s totally free. And completely harmless.