Language Crashes

Magnetic lettersI’m not a particularly patient person. I’m reminded of this shortcoming every time I get in a car. No, I don’t subscribe to out-of-control road rage, but I do tap the steering wheel and “yell” at the cars going under the speed limit or straddling the lane lines. (I offset this aggravation by singing along with the radio, but only if I’m alone. Yes, I’m weird.) I also try to avoid offensive gestures unless they’re directed my way first, which doesn’t happen very often.

On closer inspection, there’s something interesting that happens when we drive our cars: we’ve created another, mostly non-verbal language to effectively communicate actions and behavior. What does your driving language say about you? Do you use your signal? Do you yield to oncoming traffic? Do you run red lights?

Think about the judgment calls you’ve made concerning other drivers. For example, if there’s really as many idiots in the world as my driving experience would indicate, we’re in trouble. However, I suspect just like our verbal language skills, our driving language skills aren’t always adequate to the situation.

One day driving home from work on the freeway, I carefully checked my mirrors and went to move into the right lane. I’m not sure if it was a shadow or just a quick look, but I luckily saw the motorcycle previously in my blind spot just seconds prior to completing my move. A quick wave from myself and the motorcyclist made it clear that we were both aware of the close call. But what if I hadn’t seen him in that split second? Regardless of how carefully I checked my mirrors and looked around, there still could have been an accident.

Causing Language Crashes

I think these accidents happen in regular language, too. We know all the “rules,” we try to carefully consider all the circumstances, but sometimes it still isn’t enough and we end up making a gaffe, creating a language crash. Most of our individual language crashes don’t amount to much, unless we happen to be in the public eye.

Our fear of crashes can inhibit us from saying things of value. Modern day business and politics punishes crashes so harshly that our leaders have taken refuge in meaningless, lifeless rhetoric that tells us little but lowers their risk of a crash. I’ve said many times that I’d much rather engage in conversation with someone I disagree with 100%, if she is equally engaged, versus chatting with someone who completely agrees with me, but can’t tell me why he does.

No Patience for Language

We’ve run out patience with our language. I haven’t decided if it’s a time issue, where we think we shouldn’t have to listen as much or as closely to get the message, or if it’s a question of knowledge. I posted before about how I tend to use “big” words and some friends like to tease about my word usage. To me, it’s not a question of using big words. I’m using my vocabulary. It just happens that my vocabulary is a little larger than most.

Sometimes I feel sheepish when I get the “look” that I’ve used yet another “big” word, but at the same time, why are we so willing to put words into categories? I don’t think we should all be walking around with dictionaries, but I’m not convinced that words should go unspoken simply because they aren’t common. The same goes for the thoughts and ideas we share with one another.

Accepting the Language Challenge

Today’s politicians aren’t necessarily any worse or better than their predecessors. The same goes for CEOs of large companies and any other individual in a position of authority. Today’s leaders, however, face the dreaded sound bite and a public with an increasingly short attention span who has little interest in hearing an opinion that differs from their own. So we hear very little that challenges us and even less that interests or moves us.

You should be challenged when leaders, or anyone else for that matter, speaks. I’m not calling for adding unneeded complexity to our conversations. Rather, I’m pushing for adding new ideas that challenge the status quo, forcing you to determine what you really believe. Do you actually prefer hearing the same thing over and over again just because it’s easy to understand?

To break the cycle, we have to increase our patience for language and ideas. We have to embrace all parts of language, even the one’s we may not fully understand yet or that make us uncomfortable. We have to be open to crashing more than once as we pursue long-term ideas and results that take time and patience, two things that seem to be lacking in today’s society.

What about you? Have you crashed lately?


(Image courtesy of Gaetan Lee. Some rights reserved.)


6 Responses to “Language Crashes”

  1. February 7, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    I’m taking a Business Communications course at the moment, so this post comes at a rather topical time…so, the thing is, the division between when to use WHAT type of language, and WHEN is a very important one.

    You mention the lack of challenge, for instance, when CEO’s speak. Thing is, they don’t want to challenge you. They’re basically not allowed. They use simple, soft, and to the point language for a reason, even speaking indirectly to soften the blow of bad news (they deliver bad news more often than not) Also, their time is too precious to challenge others (except when they’re making money doing it, i.e. Steve Jobs)

    Politicians, too, are not out to challenge. They may use rhetoric as if they wish to do so, but they won’t do it either. If the general population was challenged they would lose interest, or feel threatened. They are much like CEO’s in that they may not challenge the language in our minds.

    When I work with Aboriginal clients (or any client for that matter), I have to pick my challenges very carefully – and do so in the softest way. Furthermore, I need to keep language direct and simple – their level of education does not allow for complex terminology – and I would come off as challenging and self-serving. So that’s where a language crash CAN come in for me, working with those particular clients, as much as I like to come off as ‘intelligent’ and ‘well-versed’.

    Talking with many friends, especially in my university days, we thrived on big language and boggling nomenclature. When I get into any intense discussion, I will on occasion bust out a large word, but I’d say these days I’m leaving that behind me. Depending on who I’m talking to of course, the best communication and understanding comes from the use of words in the right place, not from a higher place.

    Long comment, eh?

  2. February 7, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    I get what you are saying & I use the “aping” technique often when I’m talking in professional situations. I first learned this twenty years ago when I was doing telemarketing work in the evenings after school. We would call different regions of the country and if you tried to pick up the accent of the person you are selling to, you sell more. This works only if done properly and in moderation, as excess will seem disingenuous.

    This lesson learned in an after school job has served me well through my career. My current work involves research, sales/marketing, product manufacturing, and quality control. Each of thee areas has its own set of standards for language and not all will overlap well, so you have to choose your words appropriately and wisely to avoid ostracizing colleagues.

  3. February 8, 2008 at 11:08 am

    – you speak of driving language. I think my biking language
    speaks, it says:

    *I am aggressive for my own defense and safety
    *I am a biker, you are in a one-ton box of metal.
    *Lets make eye contact so we know we’ve seen each other.
    *Don’t ‘F’ with me, you could seriously hurt me.

    …bikers have a responsibility to communicate effectively and act quickly, for drivers’ sanity, and for their own safety.

  4. 4 Britt
    February 8, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    @t h rive: You point out, for example, that CEOs aren’t allowed to challenge with their language. That’s exactly the point I’m getting out. In the case of a business, CEOs couch their language so as not to upset stock prices or board members. We’ve given language power to affect things, but I’m not convinced that it’s the best power.

    You also make the very valid observation that the time/place is equally important to language use. I agree with your description of taking one’s audience and abilities into consideration. What I take issue with is automatically defaulting to a particular method because it’s “easier.” My position is that we need to think more about the language we use, not necessarily make it more complex just because we can.

    2nd Comment: Ditto.

    @Shannon: Accents present an interesting path for this topic. It opens the door to the question of dialects and slang. As I’m sure you’ve found in your work experience, certain language, and even specific words, is called for depending on the audience. These actions require thought to weight what’s most appropriate in a given situation, which to me, is the whole point I was trying to get at with this post. Don’t take the safest route just because it requires little thought. Take the best route to most effectively communicate.

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