I’m Speaking English, Why Aren’t You Understanding Me?

Every so often, I have the realization that my normal vernacular isn’t always shared by the majority of the populace. Sometimes, it’s because of the subcultures that I run in (What do you mean you’ve never heard of Cthulhu?). Sometimes, it’s technical jargon that I’ve learned to take for granted (Why are you going to all those websites when you could use an RSS Reader? What do you mean, what’s RSS?). And sometimes, it’s because of my circle of friends proclivity to use, as one of them so eloquently puts it, “five-dollar words.” The real humor comes when I am completely unaware that the word I am using is not in common usage. It gets worse when I can’t comprehend how a person doesn’t understand the word I’m using, mostly because I have no poker face.

An example of this was when I was working as a manager at Mickey D’s. One of the other managers and I had, to put it politely, a personality clash. To be blunt, I thought she was an idiot. Then this occurred, which really kind of soured the relationship.

Her: Derek, you tied your tie too short.

Me (with my normal sarcasm): Please don’t preach to me about your archaic fashion ideas.

Her (very annoyed): Why do you always use those big words?

Me (confused): Which word?

Her: Archaic.

Me: You couldn’t figure it out from the context?

Her: You don’t have to be so condescending to me. I have a degree in education.

Me: And you’ve never even heard of the term “archaic”?

Her: Where would I have come across that word?

Me (in an overly smug tone): Thank you for demonstrating why we in the business school have stereotypes about those of you in the education school.

For the record, I made that last comment just to piss her off. It was one of my few joys during that period of that job. Granted, she’s not a representative sample of the population. This was the same woman who got a degree in elementary education before realizing she didn’t like working with elementary-age children, and then went to work at Mickey D’s because it was the only job she felt she could get.

Why do I bring up this particular anecdote (other than it amuses the hell out of me)? Because I, as a writer and occasional presenter, have to remember that my audience isn’t exactly like me. I like using terms that are as precise as possible, but aren’t in common usage. This is a particularly difficult issue when talking to another person about skeptical, atheist, or even gun rights issues. A good example of this is XKCD’s Up Goer 5 comic. This is explaining the Saturn 5 program using the 1,000 most common words in the English language. It’s a little bit of taking the issue to the extreme, but it does remind me to try and moderate my speech to my audience. It doesn’t mean I can’t occasionally throw in a technical or subculture term (or even a “five-dollar word”). It just means I have to make sure that if I do, the meaning can be extrapolated from the context. Or at least provide some hyperlinks so the reader can easily look it up.

1 Comment

  1. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in a weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. – Ray Bradbury

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