Why Did You Say It Like That?

What words you choose, how you phrase your ideas, depends on your audience, the nature of your information, and what impression you want to leave the listener. It is just as important in written communication as it is in speaking, and of course, the advantage of written communication is that you have time to experiment and play with words until you actually express what you mean the way you mean it.

Why Did You Say It Like That?

You might like to think of this as ‘painting a picture with words.’ Putting aside the subject of word choice for the moment, imagine you wanted to do an oil painting of the local park. You’ve chosen your particular site. Now—is this a morning or afternoon scene? You’ll choose your colours and direct your shadows differently for each. What season of the year is this? That will influence your colour choice even further. And then—what style? Do you want this painting to have a dreamy, almost surreal quality? Do you want it to be sharp like a photograph? Should it depress the viewer, or give good cheer?

In speaking and writing, you make similar choices to these, and for that you need a good command of the language. The best way to do that is to savour the works of other speakers and writers. This will help you broaden your vocabulary and style. Exposure to poetry will help you develop a sensitivity to phrasing (the brushstrokes of your verbal painting). The best way for me to demonstrate this is to give you some examples.

A man who courts a lady will make an impression if he tells her she’s a ‘looker’—probably a bad one. ‘Looker’ sounds like he is objectifying her, and at best, she will not believe him to be sincere. A man who tells a woman he thinks she’s ‘beautiful’ makes a more positive impression because the choice of word implies respect and admiration.

When someone loses a job, the employer has a choice of saying, ‘You’re fired!’, ‘I’m going to have to let you go,’ and ‘I’d like you to take early retirement.’ Each phrase has a different impact. ‘You’re fired!’ is unquestionably hostile, and the employer’s only regret is that the employee won’t be around so he can fire him again. ‘I’m going to have to let you go,’ suggests regret, and ‘early retirement’ implies this is a good thing, I’m doing you a favour.

People who write résumés, whether their own or someone else’s, are confronted with the difficulty of talking about their earlier jobs in a way that is attention-catching. To put it another way, people composing résumés are challenged to relate previous employment activities in a compelling fashion.

A young woman described her current job responsibility as ‘tossing the garbage.’ After her job coach modified this sentence, she was ‘responsible for the removal of end-of-day non-essential work product.’ Another client explained that he was ‘responsible for the dissemination and circulation of inter- and extra-departmental communiques, including government-issued certificates, within the structure of a corporate environment.’ He worked in the company mailroom.

In this way, you choose your words with regard to the result you want to have. When someone asks you, ‘does this make my hips look big?’ you may be accurate in saying, ‘like all outdoors!’ but you will convey the same general impression without offense if you answer, ‘You have other things in your wardrobe that are more complimentary.’

If you’ve seen a fashion show, when the first model comes on the runway, your immediate private observation might be ‘she looks like a walking cupcake,’ but if you’re the fashion reporter for the local newspaper, you will write, ‘the model wore a retro-design dress of layered lace, with gay, cheerful colours and matching accessories.’

You might remember a scene in one of the Indiana Jones movies in which Sean Connery unintentionally fired a machine gun at the tail of his own bi-plane. When Harrison Ford asked what happened, Connery answered, ‘We’ve been hit.’ It was factual, but phrased in a way that Connery was spared embarrassment. He chose an unorthodox approach to the truth.

The world thrives on these sensitive approaches. Prison guards are now Corrections Officers; stewardesses are Flight Attendants, and the guy or gal who delivers your mail is a Postal Carrier, not a mail man. The Department of War has become the Department of Defence. There are always other ways to say what you mean, each with its own effect.

As much of an opponent as I am to ‘specialized language’, and as hostile as I am to the loathsome practice of ‘politically correct language,’ I concede there is a real need for intelligently sensitive communication. We live in an age in which people are always looking for new ways to be insulted. One must speak or write carefully.

There are many languages in which a single word can mean two things we would translate into English differently. In Romani, for example, one word—piav—means both ‘smoke’ and ‘drink’. The word muj means both ‘face’ and ‘mouth’. The verb ‘to eat’ can mean ‘to kiss.’ Be delighted when a beautiful Roma lady whispers to you (through an unskilled translator) that she wants to eat your mouth—it means she wants to kiss you. (The source for this information is Bury Me Standing, by Isabel Fonseca, pp 56-58.)

Fortunately the English language is so rich that any desired impression can be made given the tasteful combination of words and phrases. You can make yourself clearly understood by the words you choose, and by the approach you take.

So, let’s eat!