Thousands of words

No time this week to devote to a fully developed article.

This excuse might wear on some nerves – I’ve used it more than my share of times – but it can’t be helped. If you knew my situation, I’m certain you would agree. Nevertheless, I’ve made a pact with myself and my readers to put something out here every other week (and on LITL on the in-between weeks). Rather than shortchange you, I’m publishing a longer one than usual… if you buy into the maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words.

ParkFailFor reasons I won’t get into, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals lately. Based on the way people park in those places, you’d think they were hospitals for antisocial morons. This is just a small sample. There were many, many more examples. A hospital? Come on, folks! As tempting as it is, I would never key a car. But it’s hard to suppress the hope that someone will.

This is my new hero.

This is my new hero, unicycling the San Marcos Pass in Santa Barbara, CA.

I went inside, but there was nothing apply in there - no pie, no turnovers, nothing.

I went inside, but there was nothing apply in there – no apply pie, no turnovers, nothing. Oh, the scourge of ambiguity!

Finally, the power of calf's leg oil in a shampoo. What a country we live in!

Finally, the power of cattle leg oil in a shampoo. What a great country we live in!

Devaluation

wordcloud1Lately everyone has been worried about the devaluation of the Chinese yuan against the US dollar. It must be important because it’s mentioned in every business report and the front page of the Wall Street Journal. For some reason, it also significantly devalued my IRA.

I don’t understand this. I’ve never spent a yuan. I’ve never held one in my hands. I couldn’t even tell you what one looks like. Yet it cost me all sorts of money because of its devaluation, whatever that is.

To be perfectly blunt, I don’t pay a lot of attention to money. While there are people whose lives revolve around the topic, I find it less interesting than Lithuanian zoning regulations. That’s bad, I know, in our mammon-obsessed culture where money somehow signifies credibility, even for the least credible presidential candidate.

Words are the currency I put the most stock in. The devaluation of words and, on a larger scale, the language is what keeps me up nights when others toss and turn over the latest price of pork bellies on the futures exchange. I’m here to tell you that the news is not good. Words appear to be at their lowest value in ages. The evidence is seen all around us as the meanings of words and phrases change faster than the Standard & Poor’s index.

I blame Facebook for a lot of this. “Friend” is a crucial word in my vocabulary and life. It once indicated a relationship of some intimacy. An old proverb says,

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Another translation puts it this way:

There are friends who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

These aptly sum up a real friend versus a “Facebook friend”. How can you be a friend with someone whose only connection to you is a photo and a few carefully laundered and embellished personal facts? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the number of Facebook friends a person has is usually inversely proportional to the number of that one’s true friends.

sallymemeFacebook has also turned us into a nation of Sally Fields. Everywhere I turn, people, organizations, and companies are begging me, yea, bribing me, to like them. “Like us and we’ll give you free stuff,” or, “Like me and you’ll be entered in a sweepstakes.” If we step back and acknowledge this for what it’s saying about our culture, it’s pretty pathetic. In truth, it all makes Ms. Field look downright dignified. At the very least, she was ahead of her time.

The most culpable culprit in this ongoing linguicide is corporate America. Look at the gifts they’ve bestowed on us:

  • going forward – “In the future”, “soon”, and “later” weren’t good enough. Everything happens “going forward.”
  • at the end of the day – Other than giving us a good song in Les Mis, this mal mot has added nothing to our lives.

And my personal favorite:

  • Reach out

No one calls, writes, texts, asks, visits, patronizes, drops by, contacts, or tells anymore. We all reach out. We could wipe out the national debt if we put a tax on the use of this banal phrase. It’s bad enough when businesses do it. It has invaded the realm of personal discourse. “Thanks for reaching out to me, Mom. I’ll finish my homework when I’m good and ready.”

Notice one thing about all those biz-speak words. They all increase ambiguity. Thus, an executive may truthfully say, “Bonuses will be distributed going forward,” but might not intend it to happen in your lifetime.

When we say we’re starving, we aren’t. What we say we need, we don’t. Most disasters aren’t. That which we call awesome rarely inspires awe; it barely gets our notice. Great usually isn’t. Important things aren’t. Very-special, can’t-miss episodes of television programs are nothing or less.

Word devaluation doesn’t necessarily hit our wallets, though it could over time. More immediately, it throws our communication – and consequently our relationships – into disarray. We don’t know what we mean anymore. Misunderstanding is on the rise as precision is lost.

Don’t take my word for it. You’ll hear it for yourself going forward.

What do you mean?

ambiguousWords are the tools of the writer as much as a hammer is for a carpenter, a brush is for a painter, or a combover is for a CEO. As such, I should be able to make myself understood. And I want others to express themselves clearly, unambiguously. It doesn’t always happen. We either shy away from saying something directly or we slip into vague expressions that can cause serious misunderstandings.

The most prominent example in my life, and the one that makes me most crazy, is the question that begins, “Do you want to…” then continues with an obvious command, such as, “wash the dishes?” How can I honestly answer yes? There’s no way I want to wash the dishes (or run to the store or pick up after myself or do anything for that matter). The person posing that pseudo-question is trying to tell me to do something without telling me to do it. It’s politely passive-aggressive.

Another useful one for the subtle-controller crowd: You’re on the phone with someone and the conversation has worn out its welcome; you’re ready to move on. The direct, “I don’t want to talk to you any longer”, is probably not going to win you any style points, etiquette-wise. The one I hear all the time is, “I’m gonna let you go.” Huh? What happened? Did I express a desire to be “let go”? The truth is, you wanted to go but didn’t want to hurt my feelings. That would work… if I was stupid.

What that statement really meant was, “Let me go.” If it was an appropriate way to express that sentiment, I figure Moses would have used it on Pharoah a few thousand years ago.

moses

I’m going to let you go!

Moses: Well, Pharoah, it’s been real, slaving under you for the last 400 years, with you making our lives bitter with harsh labor and all. But now I’m gonna let you go.

Pharoah: You’re gonna…? How did…? I thought…?

Moses: See you at the Red Sea. Bye now.

It could have been that simple. No plagues required.

(As an aside, the easiest way to end a protracted phone call is to hang up while you are speaking. Hanging up on the other party would be rude. No one expects you to hang up on yourself. This is purely hypothetical. I would never do this, of course.)

The problem with those approaches is all the room for misunderstanding.

Mother: Billy, do you want to take out the trash now?

Billy: Not really. Instead I think I’ll just blockade myself in my room and play video games until puberty’s over. But thanks for the offer, Mom!

Mother: I sincerely appreciate your honesty, Billy.

The above approaches should be avoided because ambiguity is an enemy to peace in relationships. That’s why it’s so important to be clear. A friend told me about an argument she had with her husband when he asked her where to find a certain item in the kitchen:

cabinetHusband: Honey, where’s a certain item in the kitchen?

Wife: In the cabinet next to the dishes.

(Rummage, rummage)

Husband (simmering with anger): It’s not there.

Wife: Yes, it is. Are you sure you looked in the cabinet next to the dishes?

Husband (smouldering with anger): Yes! I’m sure I looked in the cabinet next to the dishes!

Wife: Then you should have found it.

Husband (boiling over with anger): I’m looking there right now and it’s not there!

This went on for ten minutes or so before they realized what she said was not what he heard. She was referring to the dish cabinet, next to said dishes. He heard the cabinet next to the cabinet where the dishes were. I suppose verbal punctuation would have helped: “In the cabinet comma next to the dishes,” but that makes for pretty clumsy communication.

That’s my communication lesson for today: You can’t be too specific when you speak. (Figure out what that means.)