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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The power of words

Verbal (spoken and written) self-expression as an art form continues to decline. At this age of super-abbreviated text messages, no-more-than-five-words sentences and no-more-than-three-syllable words (suited for the no-more-than-three-seconds attention spans), increasing numbers of people refuse to consider, how their words affect others and whether the impact is what they intended in the first place.

If you frequently find yourself explaining something to someone for the fifth time, arguing with someone over something they shouldn't have caused a conflict, or faced with someone who no longer wishes to interact with you, don't rush to blame it on your companions - the problem might lie closer to home.

Be well-versed in the basics

At one point, a friend of my who was an English major had put together a wonderful little summary for those who struggle with some of the simplest conundrums presented by the English language. Please read it, print several copies and tape them all over your house where you can see them easily, until this stuff is burned into your brain tissue.

"There" : The place we are going

"Their" : Anything belonging to a group of people, and really, not something belonging to one person whose gender you cannot remember or is undetermined. It will change in fifty years. In the mean time, it just confuses your employers.

"They're" : They are

"Your" : Anything that belongs to you.

"You're" : You are

"to" : It's a preposition. That means that it has to do with location. Or you can stick it in front of a verb if you want to make an infinitive.

"too" : This means "also," it can also emphasize quantity ("too many," "too much," "too few").

"two" : 2

"Its" : If something belongs to it, this is the word you use. It's possessive.

"It's" : "It is."

"none" : "not one." This is singular, so it is incorrect to say, "none of us are." Instead, you should say, "none of us is."

"..." : This is called an elipsis. Trust me, you have no good reason to use this.

Mr. : This is what you call any gentleman whom you do not know well, or who is in a position of authority, unless that person asks you to refer to him otherwise.

Mrs. : This is what you call any married, divorced, or widowed woman whom you do not know well, or who is in a position of authority, unless that person asks you to refer to her otherwise.

Miss : This is what you call any un-married, young woman whom you do not know well, or who is in a position of authority, unless that person asks you to refer to her otherwise.

Ms. (mizz): This is what you call any un-married, older woman whom you do not know well, or who is in a position of authority, unless that person asks you to refer to her otherwise.

Ma'am : If you do not know whether or not to call a woman Mrs., Miss, or Ms., call her "ma'am," especially if she is asking you to do something: "yes, Ma'am."

Sir : If a gentleman asks you to do something, please call him "Sir."

"Please" : This is short for, "if you please." When saying "please," keep in mind that you are trying to keep the other person's wishes at heart, and not your own. This is the heart of courtesy. If you cannot do this, please, ask for nothing.

"Thank you" : This means, "I thank you." Let's begin involving ourselves in thanksgiving.

You won't believe, how much less intelligent your writing comes across, when you use "should'of" instead of "should've" or "should have" or "two" instead of "to" or "too". It doesn't matter how intelligent your content is - your readers (or listeners) will be distracted from your deepest ideas by those pesky little errors.

Our minds always pick up an irregularity - a bump in a straight line, a crack in a smooth surface, a stain on white fabric - and tend to zero in on it and stop paying attention to the rest. Trust me, they will react the same way to irregularities in your writing, and I don't think you want them to focus on that.

Be comprehensible

I don't know how many school teachers and writers have to point this out, but please don't use all caps or all lower case letters when you write. You have probably heard this a million times, but something written in all caps does come across as yelling. And when you write in all lower caps, it is difficult to read and projects an image of someone sloppy, careless and lazy - so lazy, in fact, that he or she can't be bothered to hold down a Shift key to capitalize words at the beginning of sentences, proper names and titles. This impression becomes even stronger, when you decide not to use any punctuation.

Similar rules apply to spoken communication. How long would you listen to someone who constantly yells at the top of his lungs or drones monotonously on, and on, and on? I would venture to guess - not very long. If you want to keep your audience captive - whether it's an audience of 2 or of 2,000 - then annunciate clearly and learn to raise and lower your voice as appropriate to have maximum impact.

Be polite

You may offer your opinion, you may be as frank as you choose - honesty is a prized quality for a good writer or speaker. However, please keep in mind the difference between being honest and being rude. Expletives can and will be a turn-off and a distraction from the point you are trying to make.

I was at an event once - a professional conference - where one of the speakers got a little too carried away and dropped an "f" bomb. Even those who were sincerely enthusiastic about the event, flinched when they heard it. Those who were skeptical and were looking for an excuse to leave, used that incident to do so. The event organizer did apologize for this occurrence, but the remaining speakers had to work hard to erase the lingering negative impression.

Some might argue that if their audience is such a punch of ninny-pinnies, they can leave. If such is your attitude, then you need to ask yourself, why you seek an audience at all? If you want people to listen to you or read what you write, then you need your audience. And if that is the case, you need to keep your language clean, otherwise they will become offended and will leave, regardless of how profound your message is.

Think before you speak (or type)

I mentioned a woman to someone, remarking on how beautiful and intelligent she was. For some reason that someone (a man) decided to be a stereotypical male and completely out of the blue said something to the effect, "Yeah, she's hot. I wouldn't let her our of my bed. I'd love to play with her tits." Anyone who knows me well is aware that I am far from being a prude. However, that statement was completely inappropriate in the context of our conversation and also completely disgusting, to be honest with you.

The gentleman's excuse was that he was a man and had carnal desires and wanted to express them on a whim. First of all, women have carnal desires too - it's not as if we don't know anything about that. Second of all, have your desires all you want, but what makes you think that everyone else is interested in hearing about them?

Please take time to study the art of discerning appropriateness of your statements. Certain topics may not be as fascinating to your companions as they are to you, such as bodily functions - yours or those of your relatives, children and pets; plugged toilets; etc.

News of a pregnancy can be delightful, but is it necessary to share every single detail about morning sickness, incontinence and stretch mark, unless specifically asked or unless mentioned in a context where such information is expected (like when reading Mommy Chronicles).

Admiring a beautiful sculpture or painting at a museum is a great experience - otherwise, why would you go to a museum. But how would you react if someone admiring a work of art yelled out, "Wow, check out the boobs on her!" or "Look at the length of his dick!"? Would that enhance your museum experience? Didn't think so...

Yes, the What Not to Wear books by BBC's Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine are full of "udders", "bums", "asses", "jugs", etc. But there it is appropriate, because these books are written by women for women and discuss our bodily imperfection in a mildly derogatory and humorous way - it says so in the preface, so it is expected by and not offensive to the audience.

Choosing your language is a balancing act you need to perform in your head before saying something. It seems like a lot of work, but - like any exercise - it becomes easier with practice.

You can talk about some things to some people, but you cannot assume that it's alright to talk about all things to all people. A tightly-knit group of friends does not equal a fairly close group of co-workers, which in its turn does not equal a formal press-conference. They all call for different rhetoric.

Take a pause before opening your mouth and put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Sometimes it is better not to say anything at all.

Be knowledgeable

Know your subject. Leverage your own experiences and information accumulated by others. Do not be one of those writers or speakers, who dread asking whether there are any questions at the end of his or her presentation. If you don't know the answer, don't try winging it - admit that you don't know it and promise to find out and get back to the person who asked the question (and follow up on that promise).

Use complicated words appropriately, know what they mean, otherwise you are going to sound like a fool trying to seem smarter than he is. I am personally not in favor of "dumbing down" your rhetoric, but if someone in the audience doesn't know what something means, be prepared to explain it and do so accurately.

Be specific

Ladies and Gentlemen, I beg you - please do not generalize. Never generalize. Generalizing is as bad a habit as cutting corners in your grammar, syntax and spelling, being rude or being lazy. Making generalized statements such as "people just don't get it" or "the whole world is just rotten" is not smart and does not project the best side of you to your audience.

When you say "people just don't get it", you imply that your audience doesn't get it (because they are "people", unless you are addressing the population of a zoo) and that you don't get it either, in which case you shouldn't be speaking about whatever it is. Not all people are idiots, not all men are animals, not all women are sluts, not all young people are rude and inconsiderate, and not all children are brats - only some of them are. Not all places are polluted, have terrible traffic or over-priced housing - only some of them do. The word "some" becomes very important here and it doesn't stop there - it requires specifics.

So, no matter what statement you make, no matter what message you are trying to communicate, be as specific as you can. Do your homework. If you want to talk about people who are inconsiderate, provide a definition and do some research about the trends in that area. If you want to talk about places with too much traffic congestion, find out where these places are and how the levels of traffic congestion are measured.

I have picked up a great statement from someone last week, "Show your progress with numbers - not stories." The same can be said about making a point. If you are going to praise something - present some specific evidence that what you are talking about is worthy of praise. If you are going to criticize something (or someone) - give some valid reasons for doing so. Don't just say "this is wonderful" or "this is terrible". Remember, you are not personally familiar with every single human being in the world, nor have you visited every single square mile of the Earth's surface, nor have you studied every single subject known to humankind. So, making generalized statements about everyone and everything does not bode well for your credibility.

Most of all...

Love your language, love the written and spoken word. You cannot succeed at something, unless you love it. You may never speak in public, you may never publish a single bit of writing, but a well-spoken word can be your friend even in your daily routines - your business and personal e-mails, your interactions with your co-workers, friends and family, and even casual two-sentence conversations with a grocery store bagger or a bank teller.

Words are powerful - a point aptly made in many a masterpiece of world literature, masterpieces that are too often set aside in favor of the movie versions. There is hope for us yet - some movies actually make the power of word their focus. If you don't believe me, watch V for Vendetta, where the power of spoken word is very clearly (and explosively - pardon the pan) emphasized.

So, learn your spoken and written word - know it, study it, love it and live it. It's worth it!

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