Talk to Me, Dammit: A Lamentation

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Disconnected

A wise friend once observed she could live life without ever, or at least rarely, leaving her house if she chose. She could buy groceries and other goods and have them delivered to her, arrange for her car to be serviced, set up play dates for her children, and manage countless other tasks from the privacy and convenience of her home. And for this woman in particular a “shut-in” kind of existence might have held a special appeal: she was mama to young triplets, two girls and a boy. And she was terminally ill.

Her life held so many challenges when I knew her, the logistics of getting everybody where they needed to be—on time and prepared—second only to taking care of herself. Helping her wrangle children and belongings one sunny morning only a couple of days after her routine chemotherapy, I mused what a monumental challenge parenting her brood must be—I don’t know how you do it so seamlessly, I said. Sweeping a gorgeous curly lock from her tired face, she quipped in her endearing deadpan, You’ve gotta have a lot of bags.

I found that so comically reductionist, but it made perfect sense at that moment when we were shuffling towels and children and floaties from our cars to the neighborhood pool for a playdate. Beyond clever life strategies, though, my friend possessed a disposition that eschewed a cloistered life: she longed to be part of a community of people. She made it a point to leave the house and do everything the conventional way, with face-to-face encounters in all our neighborhood venues and beyond. And when she could not leave she brought the community to her home in weekly morning gatherings.

She’s gone now and her children are grown. She made that important observation about community more than a decade ago, when the web had already facilitated so much for so many, and when the emerging smartphone technology was changing how we communicate with each other. In her obituary my friend opined that we’re put on this planet to help each other; when I reflect on her words now, I believe they were prophetic. We pay a heavy toll for crawling inside ourselves and forgetting the real, three-dimensional world all around us. I don’t mean nature, or even the built environment, but the world of people.

Are we losing our ability to talk to each other? My own Millennial grew up with a multitude of devices at his fingertips; they are a fluid extension of him. But there are times I want to reach through the ether, grab him by the collar, and shake the stew out of him. In our almost-daily video chats, despite the magical technology that truncates the thousand miles separating us to two feet, there is sometimes more dead air time than talk. While the line is open he simultaneously texts or messages friends (and even people he does not know) from various platforms; sometimes he says “hang on,” other times he engages without telling me, so I’m confused as to whom he is speaking at that moment. Once in a while I hand him some tough love: I’ll hang up and you can call me back when you’re ready to talk to me <click>. That feels so mom-ish and old fashioned, but still: I can’t imagine indulging him this way helps him develop the skills he needs to become a responsible adult, a road he’s still navigating. Or maybe it does; maybe the mere “presence” of his mom means as much to him now as it did when he was a child, even if there is no meaningful exchange of ideas.

Still, it’s a disquieting habit. I helped raise this kid and therefore presumably own it, along with his dad. He represents others of his ilk, a generation for whom the communication game has changed, and the rules are no longer recognizable, at least not to me. Being brushed off by someone less familiar to you than a member of your own family, when they owed you at least a modicum of decorum or civility but failed to disengage from a piece of hardware, is more difficult to wave off; these people feel damaged to me.

But I also wonder whether our fantastic modern devices are damaging the rest of us, who were not born wearing earbuds. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I recently observed another couple at a local eatery who were each buried in a device for nearly their entire meal. They did not speak, coming up for air only long enough to shovel down bites of food, then turning back to whatever important thing held their rapt attention. We grinned and shook our heads.

I admit to drinking the Kool-Aid, too, as a compulsive user of small electronics. And I produce digital marketing content for a living, working in an industry that has grown up around this technology and helped shape it: you could say I’m part of the problem on a global scale. But our devices are intoxicating: they deliver the world to us in the palm of our hand. Who can resist that Siren? And paradoxically they’ve disconnected us, I think. To be sure, there are times when that is the better alternative—in a crowded doctor’s waiting room or on a jetliner, for example, when the need to create a barrier is important and real. On more than one occasion I’ve buried myself in a device to avoid an encounter with an undesirable; a book would have stepped up to the plate years ago, still a willing companion from time to time when you remembered to bring it. The phone, though, is small, powerful, and it’s always there. And when you live in the middle of nowhere as I have in recent years, it can actually help you feel connected, that is assuming you can find a signal.

Our devices make us feel evolved, but I question that condition when they appear to isolate us from each other instead of drawing us together. Look at me when I’m talking to you, your mom once insisted. Wouldn’t it be something if this one familiar refrain, forgotten in some circles, may finally be so important it saves us as a species? After all, maybe we really were put here to help each other.

Writing with Precise Language: Why it Matters

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Precise Language

In my professional life writing and editing copy for a digital marketing agency I read a lot of other copy floating around the ‘net. And while the volume of trendy, quippy, or just plain prosaic writing in the cyber sphere may come as no surprise to many, what surprises and disappoints me is how much of it falls under the mantle of elite publishing houses, a phenomenon that somehow gives it more credence. If you’re thinking I should climb down off my high horse, rest assured I don’t adhere to the philosophy that all published copy should be scrubbed clean of colorful slang or modern conventions, far from it: I find the evolution of the spoken and written word through history fascinating. And of course the intended audience of any piece of writing matters. But our language is a barometer for who we are, after all. And using imprecise language (because it’s easy, it’s recognizable, and everybody’s doing it) is a trend that mirrors the bigger, more disquieting habit of indifference we’ve embraced collectively for a couple of generations now; it reaches into most aspects of our cultural experience as Americans.

I’ll use clothing as an example. When I was a kid I recall my mom dressing for routine doctor appointments. Visiting the doctor was an occasion: she piled her hair into a beautiful French twist, pulled on her stockings under a tailored skirt, and left the house in a pair of pumps and a blazer with a string of pearls around her neck. It’s what you did when you visited a professional in the 1960s; dressing up was a show of respect for a trusted expert who you hoped would in turn deliver sound advice. This relationship was precisely defined, and my mom’s attire—and presumably her doctor’s—helped to clearly demarcate its boundaries.

At five I was to fly across my erstwhile home state of Tennessee alone to visit my grandmother, who would be there to greet me at the gate; I was a little terrified, considerably thrilled. Getting my fancy new travel outfit was as much an occasion as the plane ride itself. Have you seen anybody dressed up on a jetliner lately? How about at the theatre? Many folks still observe at least a modicum of decorum for an 8:00 curtain, but I guarantee you’ll find at least a few who look like they grabbed a rumpled something off the floor for a night out, even in a highfaultin venue. As a former classical ballerina and ballet teacher, I assure you the artists on the stage appreciate the effort you made to come and see them in the first place, but also the show of enthusiasm in your deportment and behavior (read: you dressed to the nines, turned off your devices, and applauded like crazy during the curtain calls).

The clothing metaphor may be a stretch, but you get my drift: indifference, thou hast congealed among us—in our manners, too. For example, when did ‘no problem’ come into common parlance as an acceptable response to ‘thank you?’ It’s what most of us say, but comes across more as a retort than as true politesse. Say I’m nitpicking, but quipping ‘no problem’ after an expression of heartfelt gratitude implies whatever act of grace preceded it might have been a problem, and don’t you forget it. This trend bothered me for years until I finally gave in and assumed there were no strings attached for most—it’s simply what people say anymore: your waiter sets a beautiful bowl of steaming pasta on the table before you and you thank him; no problem, he says. But the rarer ‘you’re welcome,’ still catches me off guard. And to be fair, ‘you’re welcome’ had its own day as a new expression in England in the 1300s, but with distinctly friendlier underpinnings than its modern-day “problematic” replacement.

Which brings me to writing. Every year Lake Superior State University publishes a list of banished words; it’s worth a gander if you’ve never looked. If one could distill useful writing tools to a short list for a newbie, this little gem might top it. And were you to find a common thread among these words and expressions, you could call it banality. (Can’t you hear your prep school English teacher’s echoing admonitions about hackneyed language?) An expression or turn of phrase that no doubt seemed clever and appropriate—even precise—in its original context, is now besmeared across the ether, rolled around, moused over, used to pieces, until it is beaten beyond recognition. It is destined for the waste bin—or at least the laundry, like the rumpled clothing on the floor, only we’re too lazy to pick it up and put it where it belongs: instead we press it into service time and again because, well, everybody’s doing it. Sounds like indifference to me.

But imprecise language can also make you sound stupid. You can call a thing iconic without knowing the word ‘icon’ comes from the Greek for ‘likeness’ and has specific connotations within the Greek Orthodox tradition, and through time has come to mean a standard that represents a larger group, but you’re more likely to misuse it as ‘renowned.’ You can say something was literally the last thing on your mind, when you meant to underscore it was the last thing you were considering on a longer list of thoughts, not that an object called the Last Thing was perched on this other object called My Mind. Or you could say it’s literally raining men, when you meant it figuratively, unless men are actually falling out of the sky like rain. Or you could start a sentence with the expression, ‘there are no words to describe,’ but chances are many perfectly good words can describe whatever thing you were about to name—in this case using imprecise language gets you off the hook and requires exactly zero effort on your part.

One has only to turn to the 2016 presidential campaigns to recognize the ill effects of imprecise language: not only have our candidates set the decorum bar very low in this election (practically scraping the ground), but the candidates themselves, or their speech writers anyway, insist on using the same words and expressions time and again, until they play on continuous loop on our screens, across the airwaves, and in our heads. Speaking only for myself, I’ve stopped listening; time to sweep those words into the waste bin.

Why does precise language matter? Because words have meaning. You can pull on your day-old jeans with the sweatshirt you peeled off before you climbed into bed last night. Or you can open your closet and choose something more refined. Or thumb through the dictionary or thesaurus for the word that means precisely what you meant to say. The path of indifference is well traveled, and expected—and that is one compelling reason not to take it.

Learning to Write in Bits and Bytes

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How many of your speech and language neurons are you willing to prune away?

I write and edit wide-ranging content for a successful digital marketing content company, where we keep abreast of the latest in best practices. Maintaining high standards is important because we hand our clientele deliverables that ultimately affect their bottom lines, and of course the quality of our work speaks volumes about us as an agency. We want everybody to be profitable and happy. And we want to continue to give our clients the best advice to achieve those ends.

Lately the trade chatter’s been all about writing shorter content. And still shorter content. Why? Mainly because we are tethered to our smart phones all the livelong day, and for a message to effectively reach us, it has to fit nicely on that little glass screen without beseeching us to scroll and scroll and scroll, because we might grow impatient and move on. (To be sure, I’m not slamming the device itself, which is pretty dang amazing when you stop for a nanosecond to think about it—an entire computer, widely available, globally connected, with the same power as your laptop. And it fits in the palm of your hand.)

When I say shorter content, I don’t mean the web descriptions limited to a certain number of characters or fewer to avoid the dreaded Google nip and tuck in the search results. This is about writing less. And less. For example, cramming your marketing message into a blog post a consumer can read at a glance before going on, but hopefully not before the desired “conversion” that ends in an e-commerce transaction—maybe not right then, but the seed will have been planted. (And if you’re really lucky, they’ll share it via social media—that’s a digital marketing high five, right there.)

The thing is, we’re not talking about an ad slogan made to fit on a T-shirt (USAir Begins With You). We’re talking about writing, preferably using the King’s English with art and skill to thoughtfully engage a reader, ulterior motives notwithstanding. I find this trend to trim more than a little disquieting.

Remember when your prep school English teachers or college professors urged you to be concise in your writing? To express an idea in fewer words, with “tighter” language and presumably more clarity? They were absolutely right about that—wordiness is wearisome. If you can express the same thought more succinctly, without changing its meaning, your message usually packs so much more punch.

But this is a different economy of words, a writing style dictated by our collectively shorter and shorter attention spans, where paragraphs are replaced more and more by bulleted or numbered lists, for example. Waxing poetic has no place here (although Haiku as a form handily fits on the little screen: Click on this here link/Go buy cheap stuff from China/Happy consumer). But so much must be clipped in the interest of space (and time, because nobody seems to have enough of it to parse through a longish article these days), critical ideas—and beautiful language—often fall through the cracks, or get poked through them.

When short digital content is good, it can be very, very good (and by the way, there is a distinction to be made between “good” and “clever.”) But that is so rarely the case. The funny thing is, I have seen some minimalist content out there that is so badly written it still somehow manages to be wordy. Unbelievably, sometimes it’s even celebrated as excellent writing. Go figure. At the risk of sounding like a cynic (okay, I’m a cynic), I submit much of it is tripe.

Back to those neurons: does that sound like rubbish to you? It might be. In fact, I hope it is for the sake of us as a species. But consider the toll this here digital era has taken on our language to date, where words are reduced to snippets that don’t really make much sense at all out of context. I know, because I’m the proud parent of a young millennial whose daily messages to me are often so reductionist I have to ask two or three times for clarification. (I have been known to correct his spelling and grammar on Facebook. I know, but he’ll thank me someday.)

Lest you think I weep for the future, fear not: I see this emerging code for writing the best digital content possible, using the fewest words, as the most magnificent professional challenge: how to effectively engage your audience with the most spartan language imaginable. Evelyn Waugh once said of his own writing, “I put the words down and push them around a bit.” It is a nice metaphor for what we do in this biz, only the data size keeps shrinking (see ‘bits and bytes’ above).

We use “shares” and “likes” to measure success, and sometimes the most horrid content still emerges victorious by these standards. Still, I like to think quality prose prevails over silly numbered lists, like good over evil in classic literature. In the world of digital marketing copy, my opinion does not matter: strategies and yardsticks for success can be discussed in focus groups and around conference room tables ‘til the cows come home, but the only thing that finally matters is the bottom line.