The Art Of Catching Flies

When I was in elementary school, I was active in science projects for my elementary school. One of my science projects involved an empirical confirmation of a common cliche: you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. In order to test this particular cliche, I filled two otherwise identical bowls with honey and vinegar and placed them in the same part of my yard at the same time, left them out for a series of specified times, and then counted the flies that were caught. Unsurprisingly, the honey caught significantly more flies than the vinegar did. So, while cliches often get ridiculed for not being very accurate, in this particular case the cliche was a very accurate statement of how it is best to catch flies.

Now, why would I be reminded by this particular story? Anyone who reads my blog will know that I am a prolific reader [1]. One of the most consistent problems I face as a reader is making sure that the tone of a book or article does not prevent me from appreciating the content. All too often there are very worthwhile writings that I come across that are difficult for me to appreciate because they are insulting to me. Of course, some of these reviews can be highly entertaining to read, but they are a missed opportunity. It is not an easy thing to write, and when one’s work is read but fails to reach audiences because it is so insulting in tone, then instead of providing instruction or encouragement, the writer is simply thought to be a jerk.

One of the situations where this particular problem with tone happens the most is in writings dealing with love and romance. Recently I read an article about emotional intimacy [2] that seemed to assume that someone should go from ‘hello’ to ‘I do’ in the course of a year, and that emotional intimacy without marital commitment was a serious issue. I tend to be a person who ends up being a sympathetic friend to the women around me, by virtue of temperament and general friendliness and attentiveness, and among my strongest sensitivities is dealing with insults and ridicule concerning being a single man. This is a subject I blog about on occasion [3], and for good reason, in that it is an obvious area of my life that needs to be addressed.

Like many single people, I tend to be a bit touchy about being single. In truth, most writing directed at single people is written by married people, and this is an area where there is an automatic problem of tone in dealing with an audience. When someone is in a desired state or possesses something that someone else wants, then how one addresses that subject is of the utmost importance. All too often, material directed at singles adopts one of two strategies. The first of these strategies is to downplay the desirability of marriage, a strategy that is generally defeated by the fact that the authors of these articles generally enjoy the state that is desired by the readers. This is similar to the sort of strategy adopted by antebellum writers who sought to defend the legitimacy of slavery, even while none of them chose to be slaves themselves (a fact noticed and skewered by Abraham Lincoln, for example). Those who seek to talk down a state that they enjoy and talk up a state that they escaped at the earliest possible opportunity only succeed in deceiving themselves.

The second strategy that writers dealing with singlehood often adopt is the strategy of attacking singles. Single men, in particular, tend to be blamed for being too aggressive, not assertive enough, too self-absorbed, not attentive enough to others, too prone to emotional intimacy, or any other number of contradictory attacks. To be sure, there are some people who are single for reasons of glaring faults of character, but there are many others who are single for reasons of accident and circumstance. There are plenty of people who are married for the same reasons, because of chance and circumstance and accident. Those who are blessed graciously beyond what they deserve ought not to look down on those who are less fortunate, and to confuse their fortune with their merits. Let us not forget that Boaz, a supremely worthy man, was long a single man until blessed with the widow Ruth.

So, in our written or spoken communications, let us remember the importance of tone. We have to be sensitive to how we will be seen by our intended audience, as well as aware and alert to the sensitivities of the audience. If we are writing with a desire to appeal to someone (it should be noted, in fairness, that this is not always the desire of a writing), we need to make sure not to alienate the people we wish to reach. Given how obvious of a truth this is, it is remarkable that this particular fact is not sufficiently well understood. A godly and fair-minded reader will accept rebuke where rebuke is due, but to be insulted by hypocrites is a different matter altogether. If you want to catch some flies, try laying out the bowls of honey. Save the vinegar for your own self-reflection, or for speaking difficult truths to people in authority who deserve the rebuke.

[1] See:


[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Love & Marriage, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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