This column was originally published in The Sunday Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, MI) on September 28, 1997.
Like many of the items at The Leaping Lizard gift shop in Traverse City, the talking feather was steeped in Native American lore. As soon as I saw it, I knew it would be the perfect souvenir of my visit to Northern Michigan.
A bargain at $11.95, the feather was trimmed with strands of tiny multi-colored beads and gracefully suspended from a thin leather cord. But the legend printed on the attached card cinched my decision to buy it: “When crowds gathered and conversation grew louder, it was hard to hear one speaker, so the person wishing to address the crowd was passed ‘the talking feather.’ It was held above the crowd to signify that the person had the floor as speaker.”
I’m not an expert on Native Americana, so I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the legend. Regardless, many intriguing possibilities come to mind.
The talking feather would come in handy at our extended family gatherings, especially during the holidays, when several conversations are carried on simultaneously and in competition with televised football games. But what if we all sat down to dinner with the sacred talking feather? Every in-law would be entitled to speak her piece while the rest of the family would listen intently, the room hushed.
Or maybe I could use a talking feather to control the flow of conversation between members of my immediate family at our regular dinner hour. The magic words, “Please pass the talking feather,” would make our discussions more democratic. Everyone could get a word in edgewise. There would be fewer interruptions; better digestion.
And imagine how different things would be if every American used a talking feather. There would be time to cool our emotions before setting them free. We’d air political opinions diplomatically — and even breathe between sentences.
In the classroom, too, stressed-out teachers could silence a roomful of chatty second graders with a mere wave of a feather.
And just imagine what a boon it would be at business meetings when too many chiefs are present. Problems would be solved with greater efficiency, abrasive personalities subdued. Shouting matches would be curtailed, empathy encouraged. The simple phrase, “Please pass the talking feather,” would instill a sense of corporate dignity. And should hogging the talking feather become a problem, it could be remedied with tact: “Excuse me, sir, but how long have you been holding the talking feather?”
A born talker, I’m inclined to interrupt, and sometimes I let my thoughts rush out of my mouth like too much salt from a shaker. More often than I’d like to admit, I find myself wishing I could take back some of the foolish things I’ve said. But what if I carried the talking feather in my purse, or hung it around my neck, to remind myself to think before speaking?
“The right word may be effective,” Mark Twain once said, “but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” I’ll bet he knew about the talking feather.
This essay is also reprinted in Writing Home.