Vehemence in the writer’s toolbox

We all recognize vehemence instinctively

Vehemence is the act of talking too loudly, with too much emphasis, anger, and rage, because the other person isn’t listening.

For a writer, it is another one of the tools in the toolbox, because civilized is boring and leads to no conflicts. Mostly people are civilized in their interactions. But we writers need to push conflict into every interaction, however small, so we have to know how to deliberately push buttons, first in our characters, and, by guilty association, in our readers, our ultimate customers.

Vehemence isn’t a civilized thing to do – it is the next step from civilization to road rage, to pulling out a gun, to physical assault.

Causes of Vehemence

The problem is that the person who isn’t listening had a reason originally, even if it was only boredom, or considering the person talking as unimportant for reason of social class, money, age, gender, race, sexual orientation, status of any kind – it doesn’t take much: just “I’m better than you, so shut up” attitude – to make the ‘inferior’ person mad enough to PROVE they’re inferior – by escalating and being uncivilized – and vehement.

It comes with the index-finger-stabbing gesture. Or the desire to somehow control the non-listener and MAKE him listen (it’s often a him).

It something doesn’t change quickly, it also comes with an automatic loss for the person who lost control, WHATEVER the circumstances.

It’s the place where the law steps in, or the boss, or the floor manager.

Humans aren’t born with self-control

Children learn this (or should learn this) from their parents: with or without warning, they are told in no uncertain terms that they have stepped over the line. With my own kids, when it reached that point, I warned each one that it wouldn’t matter whether they were right or wrong: by escalating they had chosen to make it about who would have the power in the family, the child or the parent, and that I would be doing my job, and they would automatically lose.

The recommendation to ‘think it through,’ to ‘cool down,’ to ‘consider the consequences,’ is, unfortunately, adding fuel to the fire, and the person so cautioned by his ‘better’ often escalates to the next step (movie cliche: “You – and what army?”). The kids tried it, argued past the point, got slapped down metaphorically, and, to their vast surprise, found themselves losing the battle in which they had thought the right and might were on their side. Giving them each credit for intelligence and the ability to learn, they each tried it only once or twice before they realized they had made it a matter of principle, and in matters of principle, the parent MUST win – or there will be chaos in the family. Trust me, kids don’t really want to find out they are in charge of the world. They aren’t ready for it, they need to learn the grownups in their lives will set appropriate boundaries, and ENFORCE them.

There is nothing more confused than a child-run family.

But they MUST try it – to grow up. Preferably in a safe environment where the consequence is “Go to your room! And you’re grounded.” And, of course, they don’t get what they fought their battle over: the win, however Pyrrhic, must go to the parent or teacher or coach. Some of these ‘wins’ will be unfair: the punishment is too severe, or the battle item too petty. Some grownups aren’t very good grownups.

Vehemence is escalation.

So. Vehemence.  A good escalation to turn a civilized exchange into something more… interesting. Imagine yourself, as it were, sitting in a food court calmly eating your lunch with a friend. Which conversation will automatically get your attention? One where two people, obviously friends are sitting and eating, quietly discussing someone who isn’t there? Only if you’re close enough to get the juicy details.

No, your attention is caught by the raised voice a few feet away, where a manager is chewing out a smoldering teenager in a uniform with some fast-food company’s logo on his shirt, and you wait to see if the teenager will do something unwise – and lose his job and storm off; or smother her resentment visibly because she needs the job, leaving the manager victorious in the field, while she cleans up a co-worker’s unnecessary mess. Or your ear is drawn to the table where one of the participants gets to her feet, with that rigid body posture that says, ‘this has gone too far,’ and you know darn well you are hoping for a blowup, something exciting you can use to tell a little story to your colleagues back at the office, “There was this woman, see…”

Giver – or receiver – of stress

I don’t get pulled into this stance easily, or often, as I am female, old, and wise (wiser than I used to be). In most interactions, Dr. Ehrhardt is the customer, or the client with money, or the parent (not quite old enough to be ignored yet), and people listen.

But I got it good this past week, more than once – and of course, as regular readers might notice – then I have to write about it so I remember all these thoughts and details. The situation where someone like me faces possible loss of control is a common one to many of us: the doctor’s office. Moreover, the doctor-in-a-hurry-and-trying-not-to-be-too-obvious-about-wanting-this-appointment-over’s office.

To make it worse, as I’m only a bit short of ‘retirement age,’ all of these annoying people are now younger than I am. And I have yet to encounter one who isn’t visibly healthy. And used to a lifetime of command, with their daily portion being all those women who adorn their offices – receptionists, assistants, secretaries – and do what they are told to do so Doctor’s life runs smoothly. (Don’t even get me started about hospitals!) So, ‘better’ than me, the supplicant brain-fogged ill CFS-exhausted person who only thinks she understands a bit of the arcane art of medicine.

Unavoidable irritants

And these doctors are the gatekeepers to the portals to actual help – prescriptions, tests that will determine illnesses and treatments, the referral to the next level of doctors and surgeons. Where the ‘patient’ (really, they should start calling us IMpatients) is in the same supplicant position, only worse, because these people come with cancer drugs or the potential life-saving surgery.

So. Power imbalance. Short time to convey your message and get the pronouncement from the Oracle who understands and supplies the little blue pieces of special paper with unintelligible magic writing on them (including the name of the person you are being referred to, which makes no sense to have if you’re the once to have to call and make an appointment, so, before you leave, the minions at the front desk must be consulted to ‘interpret and extend’ the doctor-person’s scrawl so you go to the gastroenterologist, not a gynecologist, or vice versa).

Laughing last – even if you can’t win

And I’m doing this on two levels: me, beggar, hat in hand; and me, writer, recording and ready to skewer – because I know I will need this emotion, these details, this microconflict and tension and suspense, sooner rather than later, and I may as well pay attention.

So I calm myself down as much as possible, interrupt as gently as possible, get my point in as moderately as possible, lower my blood pressure as well as possible, and set the brain on ‘record.’

This power imbalance, btw, is the main source of ‘white-coat syndrome’ – where your blood pressure goes through the roof only in the doctor’s office, but that is the number that goes in your chart: they cause it, and then tuck it in there so the life insurance company has nice large number to raise your premium with, duly recorded by a licensed medical practitioner (often one of the office minions, which makes it worse). And then the discussions about HBP being an invisible illness which kills, and instructions to take some of these little pills to lower your BP – come back in 6 months and we’ll run the numbers again – which lead to massive non-compliance in the frustrated ‘client’ – no one likes to be told to do something… No matter. I digress.

The tool for your kit: elicit emotion from the READER

Back to Vehemence. Such a lovely writer’s tool. Because executing the little interaction properly on the page will lead to that most-desired of effects: emotion in the READER. And resonate with the reader it will – the higher-status you are in life, the more stress you will give, rather than receive; but no one escapes entirely, and most of us will die with other people treating us as the weaklings we have become with age – or the heart-attack or trauma patient who didn’t make it.

So, writer, use it well. And READER – lovely reader – know that I will manipulate your emotions (for your own good, of course), yank your chain, push your buttons – and, if I can, lead you through a vicarious experience where this happens to a character and not to you, for your edification and pleasure.

And, btw, I get to dump it on the paper so it won’t fester inside my skull. At least not until the next time.

Surely you’ve been in the same position?

4 thoughts on “Vehemence in the writer’s toolbox

  1. Widdershins

    Doctors offices – BLEGH! Specialist doctor offices – double BLEGH!!! … thankfully it shifted for me when I decided that it was all a game, (albeit a very serious game, don’t get me wrong, but a game none-the-less) and I was the gamesmistress who knew all the rules, and they were my servants, or minions (a much better word) who are in the game to serve my needs, not the other way around. I’m not nasty or impolite, (I respect the knowledge if not the person/minion) but firmly maintain my role in the game. It works in a surprising number of different life situations.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Having been kicked out of a couple of places makes you skittish. And it takes so much energy out of my meager store to go, I have to try to get maximum information. I’m trying desperately to do what they say can’t be done – but my yoga books imply CAN be done: decompress the spine and remove pressure on nerves and discs. It’s a bit of a race against time – as I don’t have a lot of energy for the exercises, and have even less for recovering from surgery. I will cost me months, maybe years, on the books – I’m barely functional as it is. Last time I was in a total fog for months, plus pain.

      Otherwise, I completely agree. In a proper world these people would be falling all over themselves to serve you, who pay – but since insurance usually pays for the visit whether you like them or not, they don’t have a lot of incentives. The last one will NOT be operating on my spine – but now I have to see a slightly different kind, just to make sure I’m not ‘fixable.’ AAARGH!


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Passion has positive connotations, vehemence the connotation of anger (barely) suppressed, but I’ll agree in principle. I had to get it out of my head – doctors’ visits, even to the sympathetic ones I can talk to, do that to me. And I basically lost today’s writing to the aftereffects, and that makes me grumpy. I’m behind, and still digging deeper – it is what it is.



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