Dead Serious

Some years ago, I worked as  a fire fighter in order to pay my way through college.   Of all the things I can recall from those days, one of the most difficult — yet interesting — things to describe is the way in which a person’s voice — and most often his whole manner — would change when he became dead serious.

“Dead serious” might not be the best words for it.   Maybe a word like “realistic” serves better because the temperament I am trying to describe is characterized by complete realism.  But whatever word or phrase is used, it is a hard thing to describe.  And, in large part, I suspect it’s a hard thing to describe because we think that we already know what dead serious is.  But do we?

Of course most of us are quite frequently serious about something.  Even quite serious about something.  But please allow me to submit that most of us are rarely dead serious. In my own experience, I haven’t been dead serious about anything in years. And for good reason.  There has been no call to be dead serious.

I do not know for certain what causes a person to become dead serious.  I might say it is triggered by great personal danger.  But I’ve been in situations when I was in great personal danger and yet I did not become dead serious.  So it doesn’t happened every time you’re in great personal danger.   But generally speaking, great personal danger is a trigger.

At any rate, I noticed when I was fighting fires that now and then someone’s manner would change.  They would become what I am calling “dead serious”.

I remember once six or seven us were discussing abortion while we waited for a call.   One of the men was dogmatically opposed to abortion in any circumstance.   And that evening he was quite passionate in condemning any woman who might have one — even to preserve her own life.   As he spoke, his voice was raised, his face was red, and he was gesturing adamantly.  I think most of us would have said he was serious — even dead serious — about abortion being in all cases immoral.

Yet, a short time later, I was out with him on a call, and — confronted with an especially dangerous fire — both his voice and manner changed in such a way as to make me marvel that everything he’d said about abortion had been said without the deepest possible conviction!  Face to face with that fire, he was serious to a degree that he simply could not muster earlier — no matter how hard he had tried to work himself into it.

The difference between being dead serious and not being dead serious struck me on that occasion and on others.  In the years since I worked as a fire fighter, I have now and then tried to write about that difference in my journals, but I have never written about it with anymore success than I’ve had here.  Describing the difference simply eludes me — and yet, I think nearly anyone would notice the difference if they encountered it.

8 thoughts on “Dead Serious”

  1. Perhaps “dead seriousness” is calmer and more dispassionate than the seriousness with which the man expressed his views on abortion. Maybe a person who is “dead serious” is simultaneously wholly engaged and objectively assessing. I have seen people being “dead serious” and I have noticed that their eyes seem fixed on something far away, even though they are looking at whatever they need to look at– e.g. the fire. It’s as if they are seeing through the thing that they need to attend to to the consequences behind that how they deal with that thing, even though their conscious minds might be strictly in the here and now.


  2. Maybe the difference between dead serious and serious is the ability to affect others’ moods as well.

    A professor of mine introduced me to a concept she called a “bounce”. In a conversation, a person would be categorized on a scale from +5 to -5. +5 being slapstick silly, 0 as neutral, and -5 as completely serious. A “bounce” occurred when a group would be in a deep conversation and then somebody would crack a joke. After a good laugh, everybody wouldn’t be as serious. People would “bounce” up to a more positive number on the scale and have to refocus.

    Could it be that dead serious is when you have the opposite effect; when you’re so serious it puts others at unease, causes that awkward pause?


    1. Interesting, Kristian! I think I need to distinguish “dead serious” and “grim”. The two seem very different to me, although I would be at a loss to adequately describe either.


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