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If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say...(Or, The Ethics of Awwwwing)

Photo by Andrew Taylor (no relation to the author)
Jun 6 2017
Michael Taylor

Of course I’m tearing up. It’s just amazing how fast eight years go by and how they’ve become these really unbelievable women, and we just wanted to make sure they knew.”

-Jenna Bush Hager


Thou: Awww, that’s nice.

 I: What?

 Thou: “Bush sisters pen heartwarming open letter to Obama girls.”

 I: It seems nice.

Thou: I think it’s nice.

I: It could be a lot of things.

Thou: Like what? You’re always skeptical. Can’t it just be a nice, heartwarming letter?

I: It could be.

Thou: And what else could it be?

I: I don’t know - a publicity stunt, or a calculated maneuver by the Republican party, or something like that. I’d have to read it. Aren’t you suspicious about anything being described as a heartwarming open letter? A private letter from the Bush sisters to the Obama girls might be heartwarming if you discovered it in a shoebox in Malia’s attic in 2080 with, like, curling yellowed edges and spider droppings all beneath it -- but an open letter? There’s always some ulterior motive when you write an open letter, isn’t there? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that ulterior motive has to be a bad one, or even the main one. It’s just that I think you have to know it’s going to be there and you have to find it before you call an open letter this or that. Have you read the letter?

Thou: Only the excerpts from the news.

I: Let’s read it.

Thou: Ok.

I: What’s so funny.

Thou: Did you know Jenna Bush Hager was a member of the Independence Party?

I: What?

Thou: Finished reading early, was doing research. Apparently she was trying to register as an Independent, but she registered for the Independence Party.

I: What’s the Independence Party?

Thou: I don’t know. It sounds like a good time, though. We should throw an Independence Party. Singles only. Or, singles plus open relationships. Hmmm.

I: What were you researching?

Thou: If the Bush sisters were Republicans. I guess they’re not. So much for your conspiracy theory about the Republican party looking for attention.

I: Probably.

Thou: Probably?

I: Who knows what their real political beliefs are. Affiliations don’t necessarily reflect true values. Did you know my father still receives mail from the NRA?

Thou: Your father’s a Republican, isn’t he?

I: Yes, but he’s supported gun restrictions for years now. That’s another example of the same point, by the way.

Thou: I’m lost. Actually, I think I get it. I just don’t care very much about your father’s stance on guns. Sorry. Isn’t it a nice letter, though, now that you’ve read it?

I: Yes. It seems nice.

Thou: Would you just admit it is nice? It doesn’t make you dumb to think something’s heartwarming every once in a while.

I: I think basically it’s probably nice.

Thou: Sometimes you speak with this incredible authority. Have you ever considered running for office? I think the people would be so moved by your rhetoric.

I: Thank you. About the letter, though: the interesting thing about it, to me, is how closely the Bush sisters are associating themselves with the Obama girls. The only line in the whole letter that stands alone is: “And through it all you had each other. Just like we did.”

Thou: So?

I: I don’t know. I want to think more about why that is.

Thou: Probably because it’s nice, when you’re comforting someone, to put your arm around their shoulders and say, “Listen, honey, I’ve been there.” Also, the letter is kind of like an open welcome to the Obama girls into the club of ex-First Children. So it makes sense.

I: Yeah. Or it could be a weird plea for popularity or sympathy veiled in a heartwarming letter to the Obama sisters.

Thou: I have no idea what that means, but I’ll say it one more time: they’re just being nice! Why can’t that just be nice for you?

I: Ok, probably they are. But hear me out: I’m not saying it’s for sure some cynical grab at affection/popularity/sympathy. And I’m definitely not saying the Bush sisters were sitting around at some family gathering - like, at Thanksgiving or something - and one of them put down her plate of turkey and stuffing and slapped her forehead and whispered to the other, “Listen, remember how hard it was being First Children and nobody got it and nobody really cared about us? Well, get a load of this plan: what we do is, we write a heartwarming letter where we associate ourselves really closely with the Obama girls, whom everyone loves, and then we say how the Obama girls should get so much sympathy and support!” And then the other was like, “Ingenious!” And then they ran off giggling like mad insecure villains and now here we are getting wind of their nefarious deed.

Thou: What are you saying, then?

I: I’m not saying anything, yet. I’m just thinking. Like, if the letter really does read as a plea for sympathy or affection, maybe the Bush sisters just made a mistake when they were writing it. Maybe their intentions were as pure as can be, but they just couldn’t completely clear their egos out of the way - you know, they just didn’t quite have it in them to make it all about the Obama girls - and so the letter didn’t come out as well as it could have.

Thou: Ughhh.

I: I’m just thinking. I’m just thinking! You know what expression I hate?

Thou: What?

I: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. It sounds nice, but people get confused about what it really means.

Thou: And I suppose you, in your infinite wisdom, are crystal clear on the proper applications of this age-old axiom.

I: Ok, sorry. I was starting to be an asshole.

Thou: Happens to the best of us.

I: I just mean, look, people think the expression means they literally cannot ever say any thing that isn’t nice. But that’s absurd. The expression really just means don’t do something mean with your words - like, don’t say something mean for the pleasure of hurting someone, or because you were hurt or embarrassed or envious yourself and now you’re lashing out. Of course occasionally we have to talk about things that aren’t nice! Of course! And actually, we should probably be talking about things that aren’t nice all the time, because this world is full of things that are not nice, and we have to recognize them before we can fix them. But even leaving all that aside, I’m not even really saying - I mean in the sense of declaring - I’m not even declaring anything about the letter. I’m just thinking about what we could eventually declare about it, and you’re already on me for being a sikko!

Thou: Ok.

I: And by the way, for the record...

Thou: Don’t get carried away there, mister. I said, “Ok.” I didn’t say, “Why don’t you gloat about it?”

I: Sorry, again. You’re right.

Thou: So, that would be a good example of saying something un-nice because of arrogance.

I: I think so, yes.

Thou: Just wanted to be clear.

I: And that last would be an example of taunting.

Thou: Fair enough.

I: Like I was saying, though, I’m not saying anything yet about the letter. I mean, I can see another version of Thanksgiving where Barbara says to Jenna, “Hey, you know that letter you were thinking of writing to the Obama sisters? Well, it seems like a nice idea, but probably Malia and Sasha will just read it once and then throw it in the trash - or, the recycling, probably the Obamas recycle - and it won’t do those poor, sweet girls a whole lot of good. But here’s an idea: you know how our big gripe with being First Children was how, at the time, nobody understood what we were going through, and then afterwards nobody knew how to treat us?” And Jenna is like, “Golly, I’ll say.” And Barbara is like, “So then maybe the better thing to do is to write an open letter. That way, maybe we’ll actually do some good for the Obama sisters - like, maybe this letter will help the public to understand them, and so this letter of ours will help to reintegrate those lovely girls into a society from which they might otherwise have been deeply and perenially alienated!” And then Papa George slinks over and he’s like, “Jenna, I gotta be honest with you sweetheart, I was kind of tom peepin from around the corner there and all that fancy wordsmanship’s got me bamboozled. Where’d you learn to parlay-voo like a gentleman?”

Thou: And Barbara is like, “Dad, I’m not sure if you know what tom peeping means.”

I: And George is like, “Oh, no you don’t. Fool me once, shame on...”

Thou: Ok, ok. Let’s leave George alone.

I: Do you see what I mean about the letter, though? I’m not saying the Bush sisters can’t be nice people or that they were just doing it to get something for themselves. Actually, I might end up saying the letter was better than “heartwarming,” or at least that it was too ambitious to be called “heartwarming” - you know, because it was calculated to do good on a national scale. I guess the only thing I’m really saying is, especially in the case of a grand, public gesture like this, shouldn’t we do some thinking before we decide to go, “Awwww?”

Thou: Hmmm. I don’t think people “decide to go, ‘Awww.’” What if we just go, “Awww,” like normal people, and then afterwards if we want to do some thinking about it, we do some thinking?

I: I don’t know. I guess that seems all right.

Thou: You guess?

I: I don’t know. I have to think about it.

Michael Taylor

MICHAEL TAYLOR is an English teacher, editor, and freelance writer based in Palo Alto.