I know you think you are a nice person and all, but the truth is that you are a liar. In fact, you’ve been lying all week long.
Don’t feel too badly. So have I. And I’m here today in hopes of helping you become even better at it.
Our language is actually brilliantly crafted to allow us – even force us – to lie in order to be clearly understood or to avoid offending others in everyday interactions. Lying is actually one of the earmarks of a native or proficient speaker of many languages.
Are you with me? No? Well, I’m talking here about idioms and figures of speech, which are by definition ways of saying what we don’t mean – on purpose. In other words, they are linguistic lies. Here’s an example I’m fond of:
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
Seems straightforward enough, right? But let’s really look at the words.
Do you have anything at all, in the sense of possession, when you say this? I suppose so, but it certainly isn’t what we mean, nor is it anything we would probably like to expound upon.
Are we merely going to the bathroom — walking there and then walking back? Again, this is just an avoidance of the not-so-polite facts of the matter.
And does the bathroom in every case even contain a bath? Yet it’s a good deal better than going the literal route by saying, “I must urinate into the toilet now.”
Our language is full of such expressions and devices:
metaphor (e.g., “I’m thinking about jumping ship before it goes down.”)
hyperbole (e.g., “Your compliment meant everything to me.”)
personification (e.g., “This paperwork is kicking my butt!”)
jargon (e.g., “Let’s interface later this week to be sure we’re leveraging your core competencies optimally.”)
allusion (e.g., “This client would be the Holy Grail for us!”)
These are just a few examples of figurative language tools (though certainly not the most original) which you may remember from your high school or college days; there are many others, and they aren’t just relics of the classroom. These necessary pieces of language allow us to not only use our telepathic powers to transmit and receive mental images more effectively (and often more efficiently), but also to add the crucial layer of mood. Without idioms, we sound stilted, Spock-like – even rude.
Idioms and figures of speech are “lies” we should be cultivating, particularly in our writing, if we are to communicate effectively, with clear and compelling voice and tone – two elements of communication that seem to continually mystify even long-time writers.
Voice is what makes you sound like you and not just any old Joe (or Josephine). For instance, I hope that as you read my own writing now, you feel like you are having a conversation with a real and specific person, and not as if you are merely reading an instruction manual full of rote or generic language.
Tone is the mood we convey when we communicate. It takes into consideration what we want our audience to feel about what we are saying.
The following sentences basically say the same thing, but the voice and tone are quite different:
“This project causes me to feel stressed.” (Generic voice. Neutral tone. I’m merely informing.)
“This project is really nipping at my heels.” (Casual voice. Light tone. I’ll be all right, I’m just venting.)
“This project is the Sword of Damocles.” (Erudite voice. Heavy tone. I’m quite irked.)
“I’m at the end of my rope with this project.” (Casual voice. Heavy tone. Someone had better help me!)
Why the language lesson?
How we say what we say is every bit as important as what we are trying to say. In some cases, it’s even more important. Becoming an effective communicator is a lifelong process that requires continual investment: honing our spoken and written language skills, increasing our vocabulary, reading outside our comfort zone, being mindful of our audience and adjusting our language so that we are most effective, giving care so that we do not become ineffective through overuse of certain phrases.Becoming an effective communicator is a lifelong process that requires continual investment. Click To Tweet
If you’d like to get serious (and systematic) about bolstering your communication prowess, here are some simple places to start:
- Bookmark and visit a Word-of-the-Day site like the one at Merriam-Webster to gain new vocabulary; then find ways to use your newly acquired word during that day.
- Take a sentence or two from something you wrote during the day (e.g., a memo or email) and write out five alternate ways of saying the same thing, using a variety of vocabulary, idioms, or tones.
- Bookmark or print out a good list of transitional words and phrases like the one found HERE. You’ll likely find a good number of them that you don’t use often (or maybe aren’t even sure how to use correctly), but that will give you more options as a communicator, particularly in the areas of logical flow and tone. Do your key points feel disjointed during meetings or presentations? Add gems like “To build upon that…” and “With this in mind…” to your repertoire. Want to be taken more seriously? Master “moreover” and “nevertheless” in your written communication.
No one is grading you, so there’s no reason to get hives over it. You are now both teacher and student. Advocate for yourself and commit to lifelong learning. There’s no denying it: words are power. The most engaging and memorable speakers are those who’ve mastered the art and not merely the act of communication. By committing to cultivate your facility with the many fascinating “lies” afforded to us by language, you’ll actually be better able to say what you really mean and to become a proficient communicator in the process.
Stay tuned for more Big Fat Lies in upcoming posts.
Still stumped on some of what you read? Would you like further examples? Want to join in the fun and give one another even more opportunities to grow in this area? Feel free to ask questions or share your own favorite power words, underused vocabulary, idioms, figures of speech or killer transitions in the Comments section below.
Adam Smith says
Another thought-provoking post, Erik. You are spot-on that becoming better with vocabulary and language is an investment.
Erik Tyler says
Thanks, Adam. Some happens incidentally, as it does from the time we are a child. But after a certain age, the incidental gains slow to a crawl like a sort of linguistic traffic jam: most people just use the same words and phrases over and over. This is why things become cliché and why we begin to answer “What’s up? with a mirror “What’s up?” rather than answering the question.
Numerous and ongoing studies have shown that those with the highest vocabulary and facility with language have the highest incomes. This is no accident. Words are power.
Jed Jurchenko says
Love your post Erik! This is exactly why conversation is so important. We don’t always communicate what we intend to. Other’s don’t always understand the words we speak the same way we do. I like your ideas of communication being filled with “lies.” And the great thing about these lies, is that they dramatically depict our inner words.”
To sum it all up, I could say that this was an effective and efficient blog post. But, it would be so much more fun to state, ” Erik, you caused me to think outside the box, and nurture my vocabulary.” 🙂
Erik Tyler says
Thanks, Jed. Just for random fun, because I’m in the mood, here are a few underused “zingers” that I have fun with:
borborygmus: that weird and embarrassing gurgling sound your stomach makes when you are hungry, gassy or ill.
collywobbles: sensitive stomach often accompanied by diarrhea (and possibly the cause of additional borborygmuses)
pusillanimous: especially wimpy and whiny
maudlin: overly tearful and self-pitying, as a drunk might be
callipygian: having well-formed buttocks
I’m sure we can all work those into our days here.
Kirby Ingles says
To quote Jed, “you caused me to think outside the box, and nurture my vocabulary.”
I’ve found that nurturing my vocabulary sometimes has gotten me in trouble and people call me out on it. From my close and personal critics say your trying to sound intelligent or smart because I guard my vocabulary. Trying not to use figures of speech which is a difficult process but I still do. I’ve always tried to be clear, concise and to the point. It has not always been an easy task. We like to be entertained by others vocabulary and we like to be entertain with our crafty vocabulary. Looking forward to next weeks post. A few of my favorites below:
Dunderhead = blockhead
Gills = shirt collar
To milk the pigeon = try the impossible task
Belly-timber = food, grub
Cheese it = be silent, be quiet, don’t do it
Biggest toad in the puddle = the recognized leader, the most important person in the group
Erik Tyler says
Kirby, you do raise a certain point. Part of effective communication is knowing your audience. I do not believe we should “dumb down” our speech because others are uncomfortable with it. However, using an extreme as an analogy, you can’t give a dissertation to a four-year-old and expect him to get the mental images, moods or intent. Effective communicators need to start with their own clear images and intent, know their purpose, know their specific audience, and have a specific idea as to how that audience should feel upon hearing (or reading) our message.