One of the reasons I hated George Bush so passionately is that every single time he opened up his mouth I wanted to cringe in shame and embarassment for the man. On the flip side, I don’t always agree with everything that President Obama says but at least when he speaks I get the feeling that he a) thought about the issue a little bit and b) took some time to figure out how best to explain his viewpoint.
A recent analysis of Obama’s speech patterns show he generally gives speeches rated to be at the 12 grade reading level, although apparently he has taken this criticism to heart and dumbed his latest speech down to 9th grade reading level. By contrast, McCain’s acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican convention was rated at a third grade reading level. Apparently, this is viewed as being populist and understandable by a large majority of the population, whereas speaking intelligently and making use of some of the 171,476 words currently in circulation in the English language is deemed “elitist” and by extension “incomprehensible.”
Normally I consider myself a pretty good communicator, especially in writing, and I often take pride in my carefully crafted emails to my colleagues and to the users of the helpdesk. But recently I’ve begun to doubt my communication skills, because I, like our elitist president, tend to unconciously use those big college level words in favor of more simple words. For example, in an effort to stop people from forwarding chain hoax emails, I sent this to everyone in the company:
Anything that exhorts you to send it to all of your friends is almost certainly a hoax. If you are unclear as to the veracity of a particular email, please feel free to forward it to the Help Desk.
It wasn’t until much later, dealing with another problem caused by a user who either couldn’t read or hadn’t taken the time to read the instructions provided to her, that I looked over this email and realized that most of my intended audience probably had no idea what “veracity” or “exhort” even meant.
And they weren’t likely to look it up, either.
And they could probably only comprehend emails written at a third grade level.
And they are proud of this fact.
I have tried, as much as my entire soul rebels against it, to incorporate this into my daily interactions with people and to simplify any messages I might have that could be remotely confusing. However so far I have failed in this quest. Witness this exchange from a user who had requested verification that a file had been sent:
“Peggy, is the customer missing a file or are you just confirming that it was processed? If the latter it appears that it was processed.”
To which Peggy’s reply was:
“Ok, all set.”
In retrospect, my mistake was most probably using “if the latter.” Peggy was probably confused about why I was talking about ladders for her missing file and may have decided this was some kind of “IT lingo” and therefore disregarded the entire sentence from her brain altogether.
Two days later we get a critical request from Peggy’s supervisor because it turns out that the customer was indeed missing the file. Being annoyed I forwarded the above response to Peggy’s supervisor, hoping, for some reason, to alert her supervisor to a potential performance issue, which turned out to be a foolish hope because Peggy’s supervisor is the aforementioned Jessie.
Jessie’s response was that I should have interpreted Peggy’s “all set” to mean that a file was indeed missing, and that in the future if an answer to a question was incorrect or missing information that I should carbon copy her on it so that she could chime in, in effect telling me that although Peggy and I both appear to be speaking English we are actually conversing in two separate languages and that the whole thing would have been solved if I could only read minds or somehow magically discern right from wrong by mere force of will.
I used to stand in disbelief that people like this were really fundamentally unable to comprehend not only what I was saying but the basic tenets behind it. Now I’ve lowered my expectations and am merely amazed that these people are able to get up and dress themselves in the morning.
Meanwhile, I am dutifully trying to learn American English. Because whatever I’m speaking, it’s not the native tongue.