People have been writing and talking for millennia. And yet there are still things that people have trouble grasping about the words they script and say… about their language.
1. Words are just symbols.
Knowing this simple fact will put your everyday conversations in a new perspective. Every word you say could just as easily exist as another word in some alternate universe somewhere. In fact, it very much does, and there are hundreds of languages around the planet. “Desk” could just as easily be a “phrail.” The world “love” could just as easily be referred to as “poop.” That said, I’m pretty sure some people already refer to love as poop, what with Valentine’s Day being last weekend. The words you say have no inherent value. In fact, the words I’m writing are just words about words, which themselves are just symbols about things. Sounds very Plato-ish, right?
2. Words have multiple meanings.
If I had only one wish… well I’d probably wish for money like everyone else. But if I had a hundred wishes, one of them would be to make every word have a different meaning. That is because words are so often misinterpreted. A simple request for clarity can sound like a challenge. A wrongly worded description can sound like a dirty joke. When you’re with friends and family, very often you can clarify what you mean and avoid a confrontation. But in public speaking situations, you must select the most piercing, specific words possible. We have seen many times where celebrities and politicians fall from grace because of a simple, misinterpreted phrase.
3. We freaking love metaphors.
Augustus Waters would be proud. We use metaphors on a conversation by conversation basis. Now, let’s get the elementary school definition out of your head. You know, the one that says a metaphor can only follow this formula: X is Y. A simile is a type of metaphor too. Any time we describe something using terminology it literally is not, we’re using a metaphor. If you describe the freshman at your high school or college as an “infestation,” you’re using a metaphor. Although they may be annoying, they are in no need of pest control. If you describe that far-too-fattening piece of cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory as “manna,” you’re using a metaphor. The purpose of metaphor is to describe something to the audience that they haven’t experienced in words they can understand. Because of their purpose, metaphors are perhaps the most powerful language “gimmick” of them all.
4. Females and males use words differently.
What I am about to say is not ever meant to be sexist, but I can’t deny that it exists. Women have softer, higher pitched voices than men. It is practically etched into our genetic code to respond to the deeper, more booming voices of males with more seriousness than the gentler voices of females. Don’t believe me? Just ask your kid… or your pet. What’s more, many women (not all) tend to use uncertain language instead of definite language. Words like maybe and could are more prevalent in their language. This isn’t a critique of women, more a critique of culture. Here’s how to stop it.
First, women need to project their voices slightly more than men. If people can’t take you seriously in your normal voice, make them. Don’t yell, but use the same level of passionate sternness you’d use with a misbehaving child, minus the negative tone and look.
Second, remove any unnecessary language from your speech. Don’t apologize… you have nothing to apologize for. I would argue it’s people that have the apologizing to do. Get rid of uncertain terms like kind of, probably, and might.
Third, be super careful to avoid filler words like um, uhh, and like. This goes for everybody, but will make women look especially weak. Like it or not, at this point women have a slight disadvantage culturally when speaking. Hopefully that will change in the near future. Until then, use these three things as a guide.
5. The main focus of language should be the audience.
The most important thing you can do in language is remember who your audience is. They are your mission objective. It’s why I changed up the format of this blog to fit the attention span of the modern internet user. Simply put, you’re going to speak to different people in different ways. I remember once I was talking to someone at a family get-together. Well, he was talking about a violent movie, and I said something like “yeah, if you can handle people’s heads getting blown off.” When I said it, I had forgotten that I was in the presence of a ten and twelve year old that was listening in. I had to apologize for my lack of sensitivity. Things like slang and jargon are good to keep in mind when respecting your audience. When you’re with your friends, it’s okay to talk without regard for proper vocabulary, but when you’re in a professional environment you probably want to avoid the latest hip terms from Urban Dictionary. The same is true with advanced vocabulary. The audience will get nothing out it if you talk in big words nobody has ever heard of before. Believe me, my ninth-grade self figured that out many years ago.
The reason people get degrees in communication is because communication is not an easy thing to master. The more you learn about it, the more you understand how easy it is to screw it up. That’s why an awareness of the words you speak and write are so vital to finding success in life. No harm can come from understanding language. It is the very source code by which humans interact with other humans.
Word count: 1015.
This blog was inspired by both the rhetoric class I take and the public speaking class I’m learning to teach. This blog post was written over the course of two semesters. While many of the concepts of this blog post were learned and grown from these environments, the thoughts in the blog are my own. I have no intent of plagiarizing anyone.