Words carry a lot of weight. Just think about it… the impassioned closing at a trial, those hurtful words you utter in haste, the kind words you use to soothe and empathize… but even without the drama, words are loaded with subtleties and inferences.
“I certainly was not slamming her, but praising her. Unfortunately, e-mails don’t have inflections.”— Words on the Fly
A couple weeks ago, I was e-mailing with a colleague and thanks to her industry connections, we were able to resolve a situation. In a cc, I said something like, “Thank goodness Jane knows everyone.” Jane quickly e-mailed back and said, “I’m so sorry; I didn’t mean to come across as obnoxious.” I had to think a minute, and then I realized she took my sincere compliment as sarcasm. I assured her she was among an elite group of people who truly “know everyone” and are wonderfully connected. I certainly was not slamming her, but praising her. Unfortunately, e-mails don’t have inflections.
That’s where the written word can be tricky. I’ve always been amused at the phrased “alleged” as in “alleged suspect” followed by dozens of incriminating words, leading you to quickly forget the “alleged” part and hear primarily the stream of accusations.
Words we use in everyday conversation can be equally loaded. There’s considerable difference between, “He showed me the message” and “He allowed me to see the message.” The second phrase suggests there’s some sort of secrecy and power at play, whereas the first phrase is extremely casual. With this presentation, the value of the message also changes. In the first example, the message is mildly interesting and of nominal import; in the second example, the message becomes enticing and critical.
Words like “supposed” can plant doubt without spelling it out. “The supposed solution was presented by the committee” suggests the proposed solution won’t work. The speaker is editorializing without saying, “I think it will fail.” Compare this to the simple statement, “The solution was presented by the committee.” Here the solution is introduced in a more positive light, and the committee is empowered rather than dismissed.
Those of us who pay attention to words can employ them strategically and dangerously. Those of us who use words indifferently can miss an important opportunity.