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Say What You Mean, Deepen Your Connections, and Get to the Point
By Will Jelbert
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An eye-opening guide on how we talk and write to one another, Word Wise explores 400+ of the most common cases of word trash (filler words, hyperbole, and abstractions) and word power (verbs of action, ear candy, onomatopoeia). Examining social media, the language of Donald Trump, AI language research, and heard-on-the-street lingo, communication expert Will Jelbert offers simple and concrete recommendations for improving your own vernacular.
With wit, practical applications, and a small dose of grammar, Word Wise will help you communicate more effectively at home, at work, and online.
Instead of saying sh*t or damn, Russians often say blin, which means “pancake.” You drop your textbooks on the floor: pancake. A Russian New Yorker named Margarita (after the Margarita in The Master and Margarita) told me her university professor described the word pancake as “word garbage” and asked her students to pay a five-ruble fine every time they said pancake in class. I like that, although I disagree with Margarita’s professor on what constitutes word trash. The word trash in this book has more in common with sh*t than it does with pancakes. Word trash deflects, masks, or disconnects us from the truth and each other: It’s empty filler words, hyperbole, ego juice, unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, abstractions, false necessities, shoulds, nonspecifics, and insult metaphors.
SHOULDS AND OTHER LIES
Evolution shaped us not only to feel bad in isolation, but to feel insecure.
—Professor John Cacioppo, former Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, and Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, University of Chicago
The world is out of tune. The world is noisy. The world is full of the sounds of words that don’t resonate with people’s thoughts. And it’s out of tune because it’s not using the language of the senses. Instead, it’s using fake, plastic copies of true sounds. It’s using word trash: the language of advertising, the language of magazines, the language of television. Most of all, the language of social media, a language of egos and fear.
Harmony happens when what you express aligns with what you feel and mean. An orchestra harmonizes when each musician plays the notes in synchrony. Each one of the musicians in the orchestra sees and plays the same note at the same time with their unique instrument, breath, or hand movement. If you feel a G note but you play an F, you will be out of tune. Seeing and feeling a G note while playing an F is a form of lying. Sure, the act itself might have just been a mistake—an accidental note played—of words said out of habit rather than consciously chosen. But we’d still feel and hear that the F didn’t resonate, and unless we corrected our note with an adjustment, we’d allow the lie to persist.
We are in the habit of not paying attention to how we play our instruments of language. The more we use a word, the more attention we bring to it and to what it represents. Our goal with this book is to find ways to use harmony more often and find ourselves resonating more because of it.
I assume that you, the reader, are not an intentional liar. What I’m more interested in talking about in this chapter are the lies we don’t know we are telling through unconscious word selection and bad vocabulary habits. They are the parasites nibbling away at our trust and well-being every day. I call them lie makers.
Always and Never
Dictionaries define always as “at all times, at one uninterrupted time, forever.” Have you used the word always in the last week? What about never? The only always that’s true is that there is always an exception to your always and never. And the only never that’s true is that there is never a knowable never. For those of you in relationships, the following sentences may sound familiar:
Lie: “You never listen.”
That’s a liar liar frequent flyer. Everybody who can hear has listened to something. Otherwise, it would be impossible to learn how to speak. So what’s the honest version? “You are not listening to me now.” If you say, “You never listen,” to your girlfriend, the natural response for her is to be defensive—and what she defends is her truth against your lie (that she never listens). As her defensiveness grows into anger, she’ll exaggerate her response into a lie about you: “You’re always moaning about me.” Within a moment, no one is telling the truth. And without any specifics to connect to, neither one of you can discharge your resentment. Instead, you both become charged with more frustration, resentment, and anger until one of you (or both) explodes. And then you break up or make up, or you go passive-aggressive for months or years until you barely talk, until divorce or death, whichever comes first. That’s why it’s best for your relationship to steer clear of the word-trash lies in the first place—so you avoid all the nonsense and stay connected through the truth. If your boyfriend does or says something that irks you, you tell him you resent him for it, but you keep your resentment specific to (and limited to) what he did or said, when he did or said it—we’ll talk about how to do that with specific word choices in chapter 9.
Here are a couple more word-trash statements you’ll hear in an average relationship:
Lie: “You always forget to take out the trash.”
The honest version? “You didn’t take the trash out this week and the week before last.”
Lie: “You always make stupid comments.”
The truth? “I resent you for saying that Kim Kardashian’s butt is real and amazing.”
These are examples of inconspicuous and unconscious lies that disconnect us from ourselves and from one another. But we’re all good people here, right? We don’t tell lies!
No! That’s a lie! Everybody—myself included—is at least an occasional, unconscious liar. And if we have any politicians in the room, we can expand that to regular and conscious liars. But even little lies demoralize.
In February 2018, I conducted a survey on the word choices of 80 speech-language pathologists (SLPs) working in middle and elementary schools in the New York City public education system. These SLPs had attended my seminars on connection at New York University. I measured their usage frequency of 63 words that represent the 12 different word categories you will read about in this book. I defined the usage frequency as 1=daily, 2=often, 3=sometimes, 4=rarely, 5=not at all. The SLPs’ average use of always was 2.33 (often) and use of never was 2.15 (more often). If we are to believe their words, never happens more often than always—try getting your head around that. This trend is also reflected in the Google Books corpus1: For every two always, there are three nevers.
Both always and never fall into the lie makers category. The SLPs working in middle schools use lie makers more often (average of 1.96) than those working in elementary schools (2.16). This is likely due to the influence of the elementary schoolchildren themselves: The younger we are, the more we speak of things we notice with our senses. We point at specifics: “I want the ball; it’s red.” As we grow older, middle school exposes us to the language of abstraction and generalization, also known as exaggeration or lies: “Billy never shares the ball with us. He always keeps it.” As adults, we can do a better job at not passing on our abstractions—lies—to our children. Almost everyone I know uses always and never more than once a day, and, in some cases, more than once per five minutes of conversation. But the most used lie maker is not always or never. It’s should.
Have you spoken a sentence today containing the word should? It doesn’t matter if it was I should or I shouldn’t: “I shouldn’t have another coffee; I should go to bed earlier; I should be good.” The synonym of should, more at home in a Downton Abbey script, is ought. In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, palliative-care nurse Bronnie Ware tells us the number-one deathbed regret is having lived a life of shoulds and ought to’s: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” If you can work on trashing your shoulds, you will have taken a step towards a regret-free life.
Shoulding yourself is an example of moralizing: trying to model your existence around rules made up by your mind—rules that your ego identifies with. Let me be clear: When you should or should not yourself, you sh*t on yourself. And we are sh*tting on ourselves multiple times a day, although elementary school SLPs sh*t on themselves less often (1.82) than those in middle schools (1.61). Whether you call it shoulding or sh*tting, moralizing has nothing to do with happiness. It has everything to do with ego, and ego has everything to do with happiness traps: Ego tries to grow itself through identification with and acquisition of labels, money, and things to gain proof of a physical existence. Ego is a creation of our imagination. And if it’s not real, it’s not honest.
So, what’s the egoless alternative for the shoulds? I spent some time with a vegan friend over the weekend, so I’ll use this as an example: I was explaining that I’ve noticed myself feeling more sluggish after my cappuccino-induced caffeine buzz wears off and I imagine that has more to do with the milk than the caffeine. I have two choices in how I express myself next. I could say, “I should stop eating dairy” or I could use one of the following more specific (and honest) sentences: “I could try giving up dairy,” “I want to try almond milk,” or even “I need to give up milk if I want to stop feeling crappy after my coffee.” Any one of these three sentences is more connected to my truth than a sh*tty should. Sometimes we sh*t on ourselves to go to events—such as a girlfriend’s friend’s second child’s christening—when the truth is we don’t want to go and we use the should go label as a way of withholding truth. Withholding, says Dr. Brad Blanton, “is the most pernicious form of lying.”
Pernicious is another way of saying destructive or deadly, and what withholding destroys is human connection. Why do we say, when someone is talking about the book she is reading, “I should read that book, too”? Why not, “I want to read it, too”? Why make it sh*tty? Often, we don’t want to get vulnerable and tell the truth that we want to do things: “I should go with you to Bali.” Our ego says, I’m not worthy of saying what I want—who am I to have my own desires? Getting vulnerable enough to take off your should mask takes courage. But, as with exercise, the more often you do it, the easier it gets. Over the last three years, I’ve been able to eliminate most of my shoulds. Nowadays if I hear myself slip one into conversation, I stop, retract, and correct what I just said into a more accurate expression of my truth. That action alone is a way to instantly increase the connection in a conversation: As soon as I say, “I don’t know why I just said should. What I mean is I want to,” both of us in the conversation start paying more attention to our word choices, and we boost our connection.
Saying “You should” to your loved one is as healthy for your relationship as taking a (moral) dump on the one you love. When you say, “You should stop eating sugar” to your girlfriend, she’ll want to slap you. Ego repels. She feels that you are taking the moral high ground, trying to control her, acting as Mr. High and Mighty. You patronized her. Instead, if you want to talk about her candy-munching habits (out of concern for her health), try saying, “Would you be willing2 to give up processed sugar for a week?” Or “I recommend giving up processed sugar for a week and seeing how you feel.” Or “Would you be willing to read this article [about sugar]?”
If you want your relationship to last, don’t tell her what she should or shouldn’t be eating. The word should—and the negative should not—is a demoralizing dump on someone (or yourself). If you post on social media using the word should, it’s a sh*tpost. According to BuzzFeed copy chief Emmy Favilla, this is an existing internet term for garbage content. Let’s expand the meaning to cover content that contains the word should. My final take on shoulds is this, and it’s something that’s become a message on repeat in my interactions with others: You can replace I should with either I want to or I need to, and if you don’t want to or need to do something, then why the hell are you doing it?
Here’s my suggestion: Be open to listening for your and others’ shoulds and start making a mental or toilet paper note every time you hear them. On your phone or in a notepad, start a Should Sh*t Log for the next week, starting now. Every time you notice yourself saying the word should, write I sh*t on myself with the time and date. After a week of entries, reread your “Should Sh*t Log.” Congratulations! You have now identified the bullsh*t of your ego. Now flush it down the toilet.
False Necessities (Have to, Need to)
“Ought once was, of all things, the past tense of owe.… But when you owe, you’re under an obligation,” says English professor John McWhorter in his book, Words on the Move. Obligation is a synonym of need, and so our word–bowel movements evolve from moral dumps (of should) into need–diarrhea. Recently, a friend of mine said, “I have to go to a wedding.” My response: “OK, but you want to go to the wedding so I’m curious about you saying, ‘I have to go,’ rather than ‘I’m going.’”
I have to means “I need to.” We have very few true needs, and going to a wedding isn’t one of them. For reference, let’s check the best-known model of human needs, developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow, most commonly known as Maslow’s hierarchy (of needs):
Yep, can’t see going to weddings anywhere in there. It turns out that she wanted to go to the wedding more than she didn’t want to go. No one forced her to go, and she didn’t sh*t on herself to go—although sometimes we do sh*t on ourselves to go to weddings that we don’t want to go to and mislabel the sh*t (should) as a need, to disguise the sh*t at the core of what we are saying. Why did she say, “I need to go to a wedding”? Why not, “I’m going to a wedding”? Why make it sh*tty? Perhaps she didn’t want to get vulnerable and tell the truth that she wanted to go. Perhaps she had a thought along the lines of I’m not worthy of saying what I want to do, so she created a lie to mask how she felt. She disconnected. For me, needs are even more simple than Maslow’s. The only thing I need to do is go to the toilet (where I also want to flush my shoulds—but I don’t need to), eat, drink, breathe, sleep, receive and give affection and love, have physical contact with other human beings—more hugs, please—and have a place to sleep each night that’s warm and dry enough. True needs are few, wants are common, don’t wants are often even more common, but I want shoulds to be nonexistent.
1 Searchable via Google Ngram viewer; see page 21.
2 For more on the power of willing, see page pages 157-58.
ADVERBS, ADJECTIVES, AND EGO BOOSTERS
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.
Visualize the Taj Mahal. It is constructed from white marble, embedded on the inside with semiprecious stones. Imagine now that someone covers the Taj in a plastic sheet, and you’re getting close to what we do when we take a sentence of truth and insert an adverb. Perhaps the people who don’t take the plastic off their new car seats won’t relate here. But people who read classic literature may.
In his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, Ben Blatt reveals that award-winning books are those with the fewest adverbs: “The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book with the lowest adverb rate.… Toni Morrison’s most acclaimed novel, Beloved, is tied as her book with the fewest adverbs.… John Updike authored 26 novels. The four novels with the smallest adverb rate were all four books in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Rabbit tetralogy.” Great Expectations was also Charles Dickens’s book with his second-lowest adverb rate (A Tale of Two Cities had his lowest rate). Which authors had the lowest -ly (e.g., definitely, sleepily, sadly, angrily) adverb usage across all their books? First place goes to Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison, whose -ly adverb rate was only 76 per 10,000 words. In an interview with Essence magazine, she pointed out, “I never say, ‘She says softly,’… If it’s not already soft, you know, I have to leave a lot of space around it so a reader can hear that it’s soft.” Morrison was a master of the vivid instance, and she showed how her characters felt; she didn’t tell. Second place goes to another Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner, Ernest Hemingway (80 per 10,000 words), followed by Mark Twain (81). Not your Fifty Shades of Grey caliber of author—E. L. James has a rate of 155, which is more on par with (amateur) fan fiction. The majority of books rated highly on Goodreads are also low in adverbs. Fewer adverbs = increased reader (and conversation) connection.
When we get to chapter 4, we’ll look at how filler words, such as like, muffle connection. For now, if we can agree that inserting the word trash like into sentences disconnects, for example in “So I like said to him, like, it’s like cold,” then we can agree that inserting adverbs that end in -ly into sentences also disconnects. By what logic? I hear you ask. By the logic that the -ly suffix is (short for, and started life as) like: slow-like became slowly, gentle-like became gently, and so on. If you want to connect more like a Pulitzer Prize winner than a trash novel, start by ridding yourself of these like containers, aka connection coffins.1
As far as adverbs go, definitely is a frequent flyer. We use it with the intention of bolstering what we say because our fear is that what we say isn’t enough to stand naked. We bolster the Taj Mahal’s marble with plastic. Because of doubt. Because our ego wants to make something seem bigger. Now, I’m not saying that we all come out with a Taj Mahal of a sentence in every conversation, but which of the following inspires more confidence:
1. There definitely won’t be a problem.
2. There won’t be a problem.
Which of the following do you connect with as sincere:
1. I apologize for what I said earlier.
2. I definitely apologize for what I said earlier.
What’s more believable?
1. It is definitely the Taj Mahal.
2. It is the Taj Mahal.
Really and actually are the siblings of definitely. At Christmas, my mom told my dad, “You can’t see any lumps in your dessert, really,” to which my dad responded, “Really?… So that means you can see a lump?” What my mom had intended to communicate was that I assure you, you can’t see a lump in the dessert. The really was not only unnecessary, but also failed to express what my mom wanted to convey, although her intention was to use the really for emphasis. Instead, she bolstered my dad’s Taj Mahal of a dessert with plastic (and made him doubt the truth about the lumps).
In the last 200 years, the usage of really has more than doubled. Combined with the social-media surge in hyperbole, superlatives, corporate BS, metaphors, and polarizing language, trust and confidence in each other’s words are at an all-time low. No wonder the percentage of people suffering from depression is at an all-time high when disconnection is at an all-time high. No wonder disconnection is at an all-time high when word trash is at an all-time high.
Really, very, and truly all evolved from words that meant true/truth. In his Words on the Move, English professor (and author) John McWhorter provides the history lesson: “Really was one of many English words meaning ‘truth’ that came to mean very—such as very itself, which came from the French word for true, vrai (verrai in the late 13th century). Very is the well-worn version of verily just as rilly is what happens to really with heavy use.”
A move from truth to very (for the meaning of really) is right up the overstatement generation’s street—instead of saying, “It’s true,” we overstate with “It’s really very true,” meaning “It’s very very true.”
Examples of the use of really where it improves a connection are rare. And McWhorter admits to the falsity of really’s forced sincerity: “[With really] we prophylactically attest to sincerity.” Really, says McWhorter, is an example of factuality maintenance, a marker—also called a “veridical marker”—that flags truth. I call it an example of unnecessary factuality overstatement. If what you are saying is true already, why do you need to flag it with a truth marker? Doesn’t that assume that anything not flagged as real or truth is not? The delivery of truth—if what we are saying is true at all—is a job better done by pauses, emphasis, and the emotion of our intonation.
We don’t need a prophylaxis for connection, and if we used it, we wouldn’t feel it.
One non-word-trash sense of just that doesn’t disconnect is the meaning of a moment ago—it just happened—as in “The plane just landed” or “I just arrived.” For clarity and connection, we can also substitute this use with more specifics: “The plane landed less than a minute ago” or “I arrived 20 minutes ago.” Or—and especially in text messages—go with a one-word landed or arrived—both of which convey that it happened in the present moment (or moments ago). Say more with less. But I digress. The word-trash meaning of just that I want to talk about here is Merriam-Webster’s third definition of just when it is used as an adverb, defined as “only, simply.”
In 2015, former Google executive Ellen Leanse and her colleagues decided to ban just from their communications after Leanse saw how often she was using it in emails. She also realized that women use just more than men, and concluded that it is a marker of a lack of confidence, a timid, apology-for-asking word:
I just wanted to check in on…
Just wondering if you’d decided between…
If you can just give me an answer, then…
I’m just following up on…
Leanse adds, “I began to notice that just wasn’t about being polite: It was a subtle message of subordination, of deference. Sometimes it was self-effacing. Sometimes even duplicitous. As I started really listening, I realized that striking it from a phrase almost always clarified and strengthened the message.”2
As Leanse and her colleagues paid more attention to not using just—and calling each other out when they did—their frequency of using the word dropped. “And as it did we felt a change in our communication—even our confidence. We didn’t dilute our messages with a word that weakened them.”
I recommend you Ctrl+F just on all your emails, and count how often you are using it. Pay attention to it, then bring down your frequency. And if you find any occurrences of just want to say, turn to here for a look at that other phrase, just saying.
Another reason to avoid adverbs is they can double-disconnect if they have different meanings, depending on which side of the Atlantic you live on. Quite can have the same meaning as really, but if you have British ears, you may interpret quite
- "Will Jelbert is a Marie Kondo for language: challenging our worst habits and offering a way through the clutter."—Kate Riordan, The Guardian
- "This book is an essential guide for a social-media saturated generation."—Michelle Gielan, co-creator of Oprah's happiness course and bestselling author of Broadcasting Happiness
- "A laugh-out-loud journey to find the right words for every situation. This book will make you a better communicator-and a better person."—Adam Smiley Poswolsky, keynote speaker and author of The Breakthrough Speaker and The Quarter-Life Breakthrough
- On Sale
- Oct 20, 2020
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Running Press