This essay was written in mid-1988, shortly after I had been dumped by one of the most self-involved cads who ever lived. I had no idea, at the time, that I should have been grateful to have gotten off so lightly. As I write these words, in the waning months of 2002, I have been married for almost 13 years to the most wonderful man who ever walked the face of this planet. The cad has made dozens of women as unhappy as I was (possibly hundreds), and I read in a newsletter recently that a woman named Ann changed her surname to his; this is his third marriage since 1986 that I have heard about. Only Heaven knows how many affairs he has had — but his one true love will always be strictly . . . himself.

The Wonderful World of Subtext
Mary W. Matthews

A former boyfriend of mine once complained to me about a mutual friend: “She'll say something — sometimes only half a sentence — and then she'll look at me expectantly, as if she thinks I'll get the rest of the thought by ESP. I never understand what she means. It drives me crazy.”

This casual remark puzzled me for days, since I've never had the slightest trouble understanding the friend in question. At first I thought his difficulty might come from some difference in the way the genders communicate; but other men friends, I discovered, also have no trouble understanding this woman, so that took care of that idea.

Finally it came to me: A large percentage of what this woman says to her friends is in what actors call subtext, the read-between-the-lines meaning that underlies the words on the surface. For example, if someone says, “No, you're not fat,” the subtext is often, “But you could stand to lose a few pounds.” If someone says, “You could stand to lose a few pounds,” the subtext is usually, “You're pretty fat.”

Intrigued, I started a series of experiments. It turns out that this former boyfriend is almost completely hearing-impaired when it comes to subtext. Entire conversations could be carried on in front of him in subtext, and all he would hear would be the surface words. Sadly, this deficiency was one of the things that eventually destroyed our relationship. (The other was that he turned out to be a genuine, old-fashioned, dyed-in-the-wool cad.) Forgetting his deafness to subtext, I would say something important, like, “I really need to be with you tomorrow,” and all he would hear would be the surface words, “I'll see you at the party.”

Because subtext depends so heavily on intonation and body language, most of it is difficult to put on paper. For the subtext-impaired, however, here are a few phrases and what they mean in English:

Subtext sentence: Of course I'll still respect you in the morning.
English translation: I'll tell you any lie to get what I want.

Sentence: How do I look?
Translation: Please tell me I look terrific.

Sentence: Where the hell have you been?!!
Translation: I love you and I've been sick with worry.

Sentence: I talk loudly, but I'm really very shy.
Translation: Getting women to feel empathy for me is a primo way of suckering them into a relationship.

Sentence: Of course — I started on that project days ago.
Translation: . . . Just don't ask to see how much I've actually done.

Said to someone you hardly know:

Sentence: I'm sorry, I'm busy that night. And the next night. No, I'm busy the Saturday after that, too. And the next Saturday. No, I'm sorry, I have to wash my hair the next night. Yes, I'm really a busy person.
Translation: I'd rather be nibbled to death by ducks than go out with you.

Said to someone you're in a relationship with:

Sentence: A date? For tomorrow? That's just too far ahead of time for me to make plans.
Translation: I'm terrified of commitment — of being trapped in a relationship. If I say yes to you today, I'll end up married to you tomorrow, and then what will I do if the real, true One of My Dreams comes along?

Sentence: I think your clutter is . . . charming.
Translation: This place is a dump.

Sentence: Yes, she's a pretty woman. . . . You're not bad-looking yourself.
Translation: I think you look great, but I don't dare say so for fear you'll think I care more about you than I do."

Sentence: Is he a nice young man, dear?
Translation: When are you going to give me some grandchildren?

Sentence: What's wrong? Nothing. No, I'm serious. Nothing is wrong.
Translation: We've gotten too close too fast. Back off and give me some space.

Sentence: No, really — I never liked that vase anyway.
Translation: You'd better come up with a suitable replacement, or I'll really be annoyed.

Sentence: I tend to hide out in relationships, and it's a quality I don't much like in myself.
Translation: I don't want to deepen OUR relationship.

Sentence: Let me be completely honest with you.
Translation: I'm about to tell you a major whopper.

Sentence: Oh, my — you shouldn't have gone to all this trouble!
Translation: Depending on intonation, either "I'm pleased as punch!" or "Oh, God, now I have to do something extra-nice as a thank-you."

Sentence: I'm really a bastard, ha-ha-ha-ha.
Translation: Seriously — I'm really a bastard.

Sentence: You don't mind, do you?
Translation: Let's hope not, because I'm doing it anyway.

Sentence: Why, no, I don't mind.
Translation: Yes I do mind, but how can I object politely?

Sentence: I never read other people's letters.
Translation: . . .Unless the envelope is open or can be re-sealed easily.

Sentence: I can never repay you for what you've done for me.
Translation: I WILL never repay you for what you've done for me. In fact, I'm not even going to bother to try.

Sentence: Repay me? Well, Valentine's Day is next Sunday.
Translation: . . . At least a dozen roses will do for a start. And a bottle of champagne as well would not be taken amiss. Use your imagination, turkey — I went to a lot of trouble for you.

Sentence: Jim and I simply adored the wedding present you gave us, Mrs. Coddlestone-Smythe!
Translation: Depending on intonation, either "Oh, God, not another toaster/fondue set/toaster oven/wok!" or ". . . If only we could remember which one it is."

Sentence: Most men are just little boys who've never grown up.
Translation: Depending on intonation, either "I despise most men" or " — But they're adorable anyway."

Sentence: Nothing could possibly go wrong.
Translation: BEWARE!

Sentence (applies to male speakers only): A friend of mine had a crisis and needed me to be with her.
Translation: — The crisis was a "stuck" bra hook.

Sentence: I'm not that kind of a girl/boy.
Translation: Depending on intonation, either "Persuade me, you sexy devil" or "Get away from me before I throw up."

Sentence: A repair person will definitely be there between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.
Translation: Depending on intonation, either "—If you're very, very lucky" or "—But we're not saying which day."

Sentence: It's hardly noticeable.
Translation: It's the first thing anybody sees.

Sentence: You are an extremely important part of my life, but I'm just not ready, yet, for a capital-R Relationship.
Translation: I'm planning to dump you, but I'm too much of a coward to do it one-on-one. I'll wait and do it in front of a crowd.

Sentence: Sometimes it's enough just to be held.
Translation: Sometimes it's enough just to be held.