In many places, the phrase "rhetorical comment" refers to a statement that is not intended to elicit a response. But, of course, New Orleans is not like most places…and New Orleanians are not like most people. On today's Love NOLA, Brett Will Taylor notes how the rhetorical comments thrown around this city are often seen as invitations to share opinions, stories and, maybe, salvation.
Even after living here two-and-one-half years, I’m still adjusting to the fact that there is no such thing as a rhetorical comment in New Orleans.
Take the phrase “How are you?” In Boston, where I lived before moving here, you ask that question every day. “How are you?” you ask when a customer walks into your restaurant or before you start a meeting. “How are you?” you ask when a child comes home from school or when a parent calls.
You’re not looking for an answer. Even from your own mother.
In Boston, “How are you?” is a greeting. A one-way greeting.
Not so New Orleans.
In New Orleans, “How are you?” is an invitation to learn someone’s entire life story. Past, present and future. As my friend Renee says, in New Orleans, you don’t ask “How are you?” unless you really want to know. And have a few hours to find out.
Ask and we’ll tell you exactly how we’re doing, sometimes down to a level of intimacy that most people would take to their graves. But, you’ll listen, not because you’re being polite, but because we’re all family around here. And, when you’re family, you share. Everything.
It’s not just the rhetorical questions that elicit a response. We’ll give you an earful on rhetorical comments, too. Even if you’re just quietly mumbling to yourself.
For instance, one afternoon last August, I was in the checkout line at the supermarket. From the looks of her frizzed out hair, smeared mascara and sticky clothes, the lady in front of me was not enjoying summertime in our fair city. As the cashier scanned her items, the woman started talking to herself.
“It’s hotter than hell out there,” she said, staring all glassy-eyed out the window at the sizzling cars and melting asphalt. “I can’t go on. Sweat is coming out of my bra.”
The cashier stopped scanning.
“Hey,” she said to the wilting woman.
The two locked eyes as the cashier leaned forward and pointed a gloriously long rhinestone-studded, yellow fingernail out the window. “Look,” she said. “Have you ever stopped to think that maybe God’s making it so hot just to give you an idea of what it might be like downthere if you don’t pull yourself together while you are up here?”
Well, now. That made me pull my cart back, just in case the gates of hell were about to open and swallow this poor, sweaty woman — bra and all — right before my eyes.
Now, in Boston, this woman might have responded by asking to speak to the rather forward cashier’s manager. But, this isn’t Boston. This is New Orleans.
As such, that woman responded as any true New Orleanian would. She thanked the cashier…and made the sign of the cross. Right there in checkout line #4.
Grateful that her groceries were bagged, her perspective restored, and, maybe, just maybe, her soul saved.
To read a related article written by Brett Will Taylor, visit Nolavie.com.