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Opinion: Want Another Dog, Kids? Let's 'Have That Conversation'

Daisy, the only dog Scott Simon's kids will get, runs on the beach in France.
Elise Simon
Daisy, the only dog Scott Simon's kids will get, runs on the beach in France.

I want to thank politicians for promoting a new cliché I now deploy to avoid giving direct answers to my daughters.

When they ask, "Can we get a second dog?" "Can we learn how to drive?" or "Can we go camping?" I now tell them, "Well, I think we should have that conversation."

It's not "yes." It's not "no." It's not even "maybe," "I dunno," "I haven't thought about it" or "we'll see."

"We should have that conversation" is a strategic nonanswer. It buys time. It can mean anything. It can mean nothing. It implies understanding. It avoids actual agreement.

It is really kind of brilliant.

A current candidate for president replied with several iterations of "We should have that conversation" in a recent appearance. The phrase enabled the candidate to avoid answering yes or no to direct questions about convicted felons being able to vote from prison, paying reparations to the descendants of enslaved people, lowering the voting age to 16, and forgiving college debt.

Direct answers might have provoked pointed follow-up questions about fine points and details. Details can sow disagreement. But just saying, "We need to have that conversation" signals sympathy without making any actual commitment.

I know a journalist should abhor such an equivocal, noncommittal phrase. But as a parent, I love it.

If our children ask, "Can we stay up until midnight?" "Can we have an extra 15 minutes on our video game?" "Can we binge watch Stranger Things?" I've learned to hold them off with "I think we should have that conversation."

"Debate" sounds so disagreeable. "Talk" seems somehow inconsequential. But "conversation" sounds responsive, considerate and mutual.

Of course, it has also seeped into reporting. When journalists want to say that certain issues spark attention and controversy, we'll often say there's "a national conversation going on," even if we only mean people are sending up a flurry of tweets. And to spare a lot of Internet searches, yes, I'm sure I've said it myself. Possibly even a few minutes ago.

But I write in praise of this cliché, not to bury it. When our family gets our next tax bill, I think I might circle the amount the IRS says we owe and send it back with a warm note: "What an interesting idea! I think we should have that conversation."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.