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No, you are not!

Starving

Wonderings as to why a commonly used phase around American dinner tables isn’t considered a faux pas.

One in six people in the US live in a food-insecure household, one in five of children do. Many of those people will at times experience hunger. However, many of us who don’t live in poverty have claimed to be hungry which would only be true if we use a low bar for what that word entails; hunger as a craving for food or an uncomfortable sensation, not as a weakened condition brought about by prolonged lack of food. It is because of this low and confusing bar that I will not challenge you when you tell me you are hungry, but expect scolding when I hear you say that you are starving.

Unlike other languages, since English does not have a common phrase that is used to wish each other a good meal: there is no real equivalent for the "bon appetite". This is somewhat surprising since English has such a rich vocabulary, but maybe that is because within American culture food mainly serves its biological purpose; the social aspect is of lesser importance. And so, before chowing down, the ritual before starting a meal is limiting to something like the rubbing of hands and saying: "Yummy that looks good. I am starving"
Imagine the shock when I respond by telling you: "No, you are not, children in the Sudan are."

A flustered response will follow, "Oh well… I guess I am hungry then"
"No, you are not, you just got an appetite."

What a downer to a phrase that was intended as complimentary to the food, I know, but someone has to finally say it. We have no business talking about ourselves as if we are starving as we are about to start a meal. I understand that the phrase "I am starving" is not intended literally but suggest we discontinue its usage anyway. It is disrespectful to the one out of five children in this country who often go to sleep without a proper meal and it is a grave insult to those in other countries who are actually starving. There are different stages to deprivation of food: an appetite, hunger, malnutrition, starvation, and death; those are quite different categories of severity. Once you talk about the starvation phase, you talk about organ failure and the following stage is death. When you see those photos of people with disproportional heads and muscle wasting, those people are starving.

Now, please observe yourself, are you a bit insulted, don’t you like my tone? But could that be because you say it all the time and now you just realized that I might have a point?

That’s just cognitive dissonance, and the best way to deal with that is to resolve to not use this phrase anymore. This will take a while; the phrase is thoroughly ingrained in the national lexicon. A good incentive to wean yourself from this awful phrase would be to deposit an x-amount of money in a jar intended for a local food project every time you catch yourself using it again. And you might not want to point this observation out to others before you are in full control of refraining from the phrase yourself, because I don’t have to explain how a lack of control over this phrase would look in that instance. It took me several reminders to my daughter and spouse to stop them from using it (at least they are not saying it around me no more). Although they both looked at me wide-eyed the first time I confronted them about this, they never challenged my premise that the exaggeration minimalized starvation. I hope you too will get on board with this idea just before another Thanksgiving and who knows, maybe in the process we can also finally come up with a good American alternative for "bon appetite" ; some sort of short phrase that doesn’t emphasis deprivation like the “I am starving” comment does but one which expresses gratitude for or acknowledgment of the plenty.



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