Nearly everyone has had an occasion to listen to somebody complaining about some event or circumstance, and of trying to respond by selecting the proper words with which to express a comforting opinion. Some of us, however, have also experienced situations where our comforting responses have mysteriously made things worse rather than better.
A few years ago, I comforted a man of about my own age, a fellow called Ralph Sangrail, with astonishingly negative results. I must say that I don't understand why he took offense at my reference to my college days. I went to college, studying engineering, in the 1950s, a decade which is remembered by those who lived through it as an era which was essentially free from problems which arose later, such as sex.
Ralph was a group leader working for one of my clients. As I was wandering through the building, I saw him studying a document, together with his two chief subordinates, shaking his head and looking depressed. On coming closer, I discovered that it was not a company document, but a newspaper of some kind.
It turned out to be a college newspaper over which Ralph and his two colleagues were clucking and tsk-tsk-tsking. Upon inquiry, it was revealed as an edition from Johns Hopkins University, an excellent school in Baltimore.
"What is your interest in Hopkins? "I asked.
"My son is going there," Ralph replied.
"Engineering," was the response. "And I'm worried about what he's being exposed to."
"I don't think you need worry," I said, "As far as I know, Hopkins has a very good engineering school."
"It's not his courses," Ralph said. "It's the atmosphere. Specifically, the morality of the place."
I had lived for a couple of years in Baltimore, and had never heard Hopkins described as a sink of iniquity. I expressed my confidence.
"This newspaper says different," Ralph said. "I think it's a cause for concern."
"What story in particular?" I inquired.
"It's not the stories," Ralph said. "It's the ads. Look at them."
He had circled the offenders in red ink, and there were indeed quite a few. Some of them touted different condoms, emphasizing design features and even varieties of colors. Others offered alternative birth control devices, and promised instructions in their use.
Most upsetting to Ralph were the announcements of parties and gatherings, which seemed to rival each other in hinting the availability of exciting events. He dwelt particularly on a quarter-page ad, headlined: "Great birthday party! Come in your birthday suit."
It was at this point that I thought of something I could say that would calm his fears. "Don't worry about it, Ralph," I said. "There is no question that college life has changed, since the white-bread days when we went. But I can't imagine that it has changed so radically that engineering students can now get dates."
He hasn't spoken to me since.