“U.S America, South Africa, The Iraq and everywhere else like such as” - Miss Teen South Carolina, 2007.
I’ve found myself getting unreasonably impatient when people don’t speak clearly. I’m not talking about pronunciation or anything like that. I’m talking about those people whose sentences don’t convey any meaning.
The “unelected politicians” among us who speak all day and say nothing. These are the people who use long words, even if they are slightly out of context. But they don’t mind because they just want to use long words so badly.
The exact opposite of politicians, in my experience, are software engineers. Software engineers have a weird knack of being able summarise gnarly concepts in like 6 words. They have to in order to survive.
Wanker alert! Literature quote coming up.
George Orwell thought that if your language was sloppy, imprecise or overly complicated, it would literally prevent you from having insightful thoughts. His analogy was that:
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more because he drinks.
He thought that muddled thoughts would create vague sentences. Duh, everyone knows that. But he recognised that the vague sentences themselves would then lead to more muddled thoughts, creating a perpetual cycle of confusion.
In software engineering, the concepts can be hella dense. When you’re explaining what you’re doing to someone (usually because you need their help), they only have a certain amount of “brain energy” to understand what you’re saying.
And because 95% of their “brain energy” is being taken up trying to follow the concept, there isn’t much energy left to decode your actual sentence structure. You’re forced to use short, meaningful sentences or you just won’t get any help.
In Week 1 of Hack Reactor, there’s a pretty firm lecture about how to speak clearly. Pronouns are forbidden. “That”, “this”, “it”, “there” could refer about 24 different things in a computer program.
Using pronouns will necessitate a clarifying question from the person you’re talking to, or worse still they’ll misinterpret what you’ve said and you’ll both feel awkward when you realise in about 45 seconds time.
You have to unlearn everything that high school English ever taught you. The last 3 years of high school reward you for making convoluted, obscure arguments that you probably don’t believe in. I know I would say anything to hit the pedagogical G spot of my English teachers.
I had a full arsenal of buzzwords that I’d fire off, usually out of context. I’d make random connections between texts that had nothing to do with each other.
I was a grades whore and I knew it. But part of me felt gross. I craved an arena that rewarded real meaning and not bullshit.
Sadly, I was only to find that this perverse incentive to waffle carries over into adulthood. In fact adults are probably worse.
My first year out of Uni was full of highly paid peacocks who talked about “brand diversity in a fractured advertising landscape”. It was full of people who knew how to say just the right type of bullshit that would prevent anyone from questioning whether they actually brought any value to the company.
They had job titles like “Thought Coordinator”, “Systems Strategist”, “Data Liaison”. What do those words even mean?
Our working life, which is like ⅔ of our whole life, doesn’t have to be fake. We can politely call each other out when we are vague. It’d make companies less broken, people more genuine and the world more meritocratic.
Write like you talk.
After reading Paul Graham’s essay, Write Like You Talk, I became hyper sensitive to noticing whenever I would write or say something confusing. I still catch myself out all the time.
If you haven’t read the essay, you should. It’s 600 words.
The TL;DR is that if you want more people to read what you write, then you should write the way you talk. Some weird insecurity comes over us when we are writing where we feel like we have to impress. The outcome is that our sentences sound formal and boring.
Not only does this give the reader’s attention permission to drift but it gives the author the impression that they have conveyed more than they have.
The best way to get around this problem is to read your sentence back in your normal voice. If a friend would think you are weirdo for phrasing it that way, imagine what you might actually say, and write that instead.