Why Artisanal Cupcakes Make Me Sick
To be a writer, you have to love words. You have to be obsessed with them. But familiarity breeds contempt for some of them.
For example, “ideate”, “pivot”, “artisanal” and “curate”.
No one says those words to their spouse, best pal, hairstylist, or the stranger sitting next to them on the bus. But for some reason it’s okay to use them in conference rooms and blog posts.
I get it. Fancy words make us feel smarter. The topic has more perceived value. We use certain words because we feel we’re supposed to use those words. We try to impress rather than communicate.
I’m as guilty as anyone. When I started out twenty-something years ago, I worked on a lot of direct mail campaigns. I thought esoteric synonyms could actually increase response rates. Then one day the creative director set me straight. “Don’t fall in love with your words. We just need to inspire people to open the damn envelope and call the damn 1-800 number.”
I cowered back to my desk as the lesson seared into my brain: Word choice affects our ability to understand, empathize, and take action.
And I’m not just talking about trivial consumer transactions. I’m talking about our power to improve the human condition through honest communication.
Take the term “collateral damage”, which is really a euphemism for innocent people being blown apart by bombs and drones and machine guns.
When the news anchor says there was “collateral damage” in a war zone, our emotions stand back at a safe distance.
But if the news anchor says, “14 innocent women and children died when a bomb hit a school”, we can’t help but feel the force of the tragedy. We’re more apt to care and try to prevent future atrocities.
There are loads of examples of how language can obscure the idea, which in turn blunts our perception and attitudes.
“Fake news” used to be called a hoax, propaganda, lies. Let’s call it what it is.
Now there’s a way to “hack” everything. Which essentially means seeking the lazy way instead of doing the hard work. Let’s call it what it is.
“Personal branding”? This used to be your “reputation”. Let’s call it what it is.
Even the word “blogger” drives me nuts. If you’re a writer, call yourself a writer.
These days we all have our BS detectors turned on full blast. We want more authenticity.
We want honest relationships. We want honest food, honest clothes, honest furniture, honest travel experiences. We want honest journalists. We even have the nerve to want honest politicians.
But we can’t get honesty from the outside if there’s no honesty on the inside. We have to be the honesty we want in the world.
You know how it is: When you’re real with someone, they’re real with you.
You understand each other on a deeper level. You talk without averting your eyes. You actually listen instead of waiting for your turn to speak.
You’re more likely to compromise. You’re more willing to consider their ideas, their point of view, even what they might be trying to sell you.
But purposefully vague, sanitized, or unnecessarily elevated language only does the opposite.
It’s kind of ridiculous. The bakery down the block used to have a selection of pastries they made from scratch. Now they curate their artisanal choices.
The art director used to come up with concepts. Now she ideates.
Your colleague used to try something different. Now he pivots.
Yes, language and usage evolves. Our need for honesty remains the same.