Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How One Talks and Writes

This post is because of a comment I read at another blog.

When I was graduating from High School we had our Senior Giftatory where we were given gag gifts by a committee of classmates that reflected our personalities. One guy who always fell asleep in class was given a box of NoDoze. Another deluded young lady who openly believed she was high society was shocked to receive a bottle of HiKlas soft drink. A kid who missed a lot classes was given a map that showed where the school was. I was one of about three who got a dictionary of words of three or fewer syllables.

It was a bad habit that I had. My mother would constantly rebuke me for using "big words" and friends would sometimes ask me to "Say it in normal words."

A couple of things started me thinking. One was in Mad Magazine's regular feature of The Lighter Side . . . by Dave Berg, which many of us may remember as some of the most true to life comic strips ever. This one showed an obvious repairman working on a TV set in a home and the customer was asking "Can you fix it?" and the repairman said "You had the primary source of power uncoupled from the main load. I simply re coupled it and it should work fine." or words to that effect. The customer is thrilled and the repairman is thinking "He would refuse to pay me if I told him that I just plugged it in." His response contained no advanced vocabulary but it fits the same pattern.

The other was a base newspaper when I was in the Navy where they were asking the opinions of several random sailors and Waves about a topic of interest. One was by a Wave Lieutenant who gave several sentences of polysyllabic terminology (big words) and catch phrases as her answer, as opposed to the enlisted personnel who gave simple concise answers. I had to reread her answer a couple of times before I realized that her answer could be summed up as "There is so much involved that I can't giver an answer that will please everyone and I'm not so sure I know the answer." She felt that she had to sound highly intelligent while saying "I don't know."

What struck me in both of these examples was that the speech was not to communicate to a listener/reader but to befuddle them. The repairman didn't want the customer to know how simple the repair job really was. The Officer couldn't simply acknowledge that she either hadn't thought about the question, had conflicting thoughts on it, or simply didn't know; her need to be seen as one with all the answers did not allow for it, so she had to hide her ignorance or unthinkingness behind an empty but high-sounding answer.

In college I took a course called Homiletics, which is the science and art of sermon preparation and delivery. I was one of several of whom our professor said needed to simplify their language. It was his friendly rebuke that got me to really try to stop using high language. He quoted some scripture to us in regard to what he called a bad habit.

And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (I Corinthian 2: 1 & 2)

One who speaks in a tongue edifies (i.e. builds up) himself but the one who prophesies (i.e. preaches) edifies the church. I Corinthians 14:4 which is technically about speaking in tongues, but as our good professor pointed out, the same principle still applies. " What good is it to preach if no one understands you? " "You are not in the pulpit to show off your vocabulary but to deliver a message to anyone who is willing to listen and you are responsible to make it understandable." "You're not lawyers trying to confuse a jury but messengers delivering a message to all."

I'm not sure but I think it was Isaac Asimov (a man I loathe to quote) who said that a true sign of genius is to make complex concepts easy to understand. He was wrong on so many things but he got that one right.

Of course there is always technical language and that is fine, but a good doctor will discuss a case in technical terms with another doctor and use ordinary language with the patient.

Equally important is not talking down to or patronizing those with "less education". They may not quote the classics or know the big words, but their "simple wisdom" is often more profound than some of the most learned books in history. Respect their innate intelligence and speak respectfully to them in a manner that they will understand. If you must use a technical term then take the time to explain it to those who don't understand.

I used to know a young man who was taking a course in Philosophy at Michigan State and he gave me one of his papers to proofread. His grammar and spelling were impeccable but I couldn't follow his logic at all. I told him that the paper, in spite of its high language and multiple catch-phrases, made no sense at all and he responded "I know! Professor ______ likes that because he is skeptical of all answers." I could only groan.

Yesterday I was reading another blog when I came to comment that was an incredible pile of words that I spent several minutes untangling before I realized that the commenter was simply telling the poster how stupid and unenlightened he was without giving any concrete evidence whatsoever. Why couldn't he have simply said "You're wrong and here's why." Instead the commenter barraged the blogger with several paragraphs that said absolutely nothing but sounded intelligent.

I still use big words from time to time, but hopefully I speak clearly to those who are listening.


Blogger christian soldier said...

Thank you for this--I - too- have had people ask me to communicate in simple language---I went to a poetic approach---the fewer words the better...
I share this with you---a great player and an humble man....Steve Yzerman...

7:24 PM  
Blogger Pasadena Closet Conservative said...

Wait just a darn minute.

You didn't sue them for poking fun at you?

You didn't wallow in your own victimhood?

Seriously, I have a feeling this kind of good-natured fun wouldn't fly today.

Everybody's way too sensitive, which is tragic.

10:16 PM  
Blogger benning said...

In general, Shoprat, I fully agree with you. But sometimes those long words are really what is needed.


11:14 AM  
Blogger Always On Watch said...

Excellent post.

I do encourage my students to toss in a few of their $100 SAT words, but never to the point of making what they're saying incomprehensible.

I have to say that most Americans today use a dumbed-down vocabulary. A pity, really. But at this point in time, we must be sure that we communicate conservative ideology in an easy-to-understand manner.

Our Congress, on the other hand, fills legislation with legalese of the ilk of a Gordian knot. Deliberately, I think.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Ducky's here said...

You must have loved the guru of the right, William Buckley.

10:29 AM  
Blogger BB-Idaho said...

Communication involves the sender and receiver, hence WC Fields'
'If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bulls..t."

5:19 PM  
Anonymous Seth said...

Spot-on piece, Shoprat.

Now, if only those pontificating technical writers who compose the user manuals for cell phones, digital cameras and computers would get the idea that many of us end users haven't got a clue as to what they're talking about...

8:21 PM  
Blogger Bloviating Zeppelin said...

Right. Speaking in "homilies."

But I refuse to speak or write DOWN to people.

If they don't understand, I expect them to come UP to see ME.


2:55 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

Your comments on my blog are always concise. I think this is an important post. Well done.

George Will is a columnist who always uses at least one word I have to look up, but I don't mind.

8:00 PM  
Anonymous Al Czervic said...

Two words: eschew obfuscation.

11:16 AM  
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