In a recent Toastmasters speech, the speaker used the term “Incidentally Descriptive” to relate how a 13-year-old girl had said she was “devastated” by her boyfriend ending their relationship. Apart from being a memorable and unusual pairing of words, the term stuck in my mind.
That use of devastated, surprised me, I would think that someone being abandoned after a life long relationship would be devastated, but a young teenager? The speaker then went on to tell us that, in reality, the girl was far from “devastated”. “Mildly irritated” would be more accurate and “Secretly relieved” perhaps even closer to the truth. It reminded me of how our choice of words can colour the meaning of the message we are trying to communicate. It also highlights the cultural variations of different speakers using the same language.
The word choices we make to describe similar events can result in styles ranging from the factually sterile to the dramatically emotional.
Why should there be such a huge variance in the same language?
- Cultural differences and biases.
- Educational biases.
- Levels of education.
- Reading habits and preferences.
- Visual media preferences, TV, Video, Film, Internet.
- Generational differences.
Educational biases and standards, reading and viewing preferences, even generational differences are fairly obvious. Cultural differences and biases not so much.
The education system in Rhodesia, where I spent most of my life, closely followed the British system. It tended to produce English speakers with wide but unemotional vocabularies. Because of the comparatively late introduction and then limited channel choices of TV, it also encouraged my generation of baby boomers to be enthusiastic and wide-ranging readers.
Apart from the influence of American films, it was a very “British” culture. We did not grow up using words like “awesome”, “fantastic” and other superlatives as they are used in North America. Perhaps as a result of the terrorist war, sanctions and being abandoned by our former allies, we became accustomed to bad things happening to good people. A mother of 3 suddenly widowed by a terrorist ambush or a bomb in a supermarket might be “devastated”. But not a 13-year-old breaking up with a boyfriend.
Does language drive behaviour or behaviour drive language? Obviously both to some degree. Words and expressions seen as fashionable in a small clique of celebrity artists or athletes start to get used in the media, then get picked up by a wider audience, become accepted and evolve into the mainstream vocabulary. “Gay” and “Cool” are two prime examples of words that now have totally different primary meanings to the originals. Does the adoption of new words and meanings encourage the adoption of fashions associated with the original first users like low-slung backside-exposing jeans and back to front caps? Or are they both mutually dependent?
One problem with increasingly emotional language becoming the norm is that superlatives lose their meaning and impact. If we describe a cute kitten video on You Tube as “awesome”, how do we convey the “awesomeness” of a tsunami wrecking hundreds of miles of coastline and killing thousands of people? It is another indicator that in this age of information overload, we need to regain the lost art of discernment.
If relatively mundane events like 13 year old’s romances ending are “devastating”, is it any wonder that entire classes of North American school children are now subjected to counselling for events that in most other cultures would hardly warrant more than a few words of sympathy or explanation? Is the need for counselling an effect of emotional language? Or does counselling encourage its use?
Are we on a downward spiral of needing to dramatise every event with the most emotional language possible? What happens when “awesome”, “devastated” and “cool” are no longer “cool”? Will we have to invent new words, or assign new meanings to older, seldom used ones?
Emotional use of words creates best-selling books, compelling sales messages, and successful political campaigns. The danger is that over-use can have far-reaching effects on society.
How does this affect our marketing messages, do we have to follow the trend to be heard? Or would we stand out more if we went against the trend and reverted to more down to earth language?
How do you use words? Do you notice major differences in how different people use words? Are we becoming a society of drama Queens? Or is this another symptom of the pendulum I wrote about in a previous post swinging too far towards the “WE” extreme? Click on this link to find out more about the Pendulum Book.
Wishing you success.