When you put yourself into a new social context, one of the things you learn is a new vocabulary. This is natural and normal. However, you must give care to develop vocabulary habits that will benefit and not hinder you in the future.
I started college in 1994. After a few weeks on campus, I realized there were quite a few words and phrases that were in common usage that I was going to start using simply by being around them. While most of them were benign, there were several that I was a bit unsure whether I wanted to adopt or not. I’m not talking about obscenities. I’m talking about things like:
- Crap – Often used as an expletive, adjective or adverb.
- Sucks – Used to describe an undesirable state or occurrence, often in the phrase “that sucks”.
- Hey – Used instead of “hello” or “hi”.
- Legit – Used to express a desirable state or approval, often in the phrase “That’s legit” or as an adjective and sometimes and adverb.
When I caught myself using these words as described above, I had to stop and decide if that was the vocabulary I wanted to use. (I never used “legit” in that manner–it always sounded stupid to me.) I came to the conclusion that “crap” and “sucks” expressed concepts that I could probably better express using other words. Furthermore, there were some situations where those terms would be highly offensive, and I didn’t want to run the risk of having something ingrained into my vocabulary that might get me into trouble.
I did succumb to saying “hey” instead of “hello” or “hi”. I didn’t really like it, but it felt much too formal to say “hello” when someone said “hey” and waved. After a while, I was saying “hey” with the best of them.
I have cousins who grew up in Chile speaking both Spanish and English. Even as a child, I was always impressed with how precise their language was. In particular, I noticed how they said “yes” instead of “yeah” or “uh huh.” Now that I have kids, my wife and I have been trying to teach them to say “yes” and “yes sir”/”yes ma’am.” The difficult part is trying to retrain ourselves to stop saying “yeah.”
At a recent doctor visit, the nurse asked our two year old a question. She replied “yes.” The nurse stood up, looked at us, and said “I just love it when kids say ‘yes’ instead of ‘yeah’.”
People do notice how you speak. Other than your physical appearance, your vocabulary is the next biggest component of the first impression you make. People form all kinds of initial opinions about your intelligence and education from the first few sentences you speak. As important as first impressions are, it is worth spending a little bit of time examining your own vocabulary to see what type of impression you may be making with the words you do and don’t use.
Armen Shirvanian says
This is true. The vocabulary we make use of tells a lot about where our focus is, how much effort we bring to the table, and what kind impression we want to make. There is usage of vocabulary that is lazy, and there is usage of vocabulary that is specific and professional. The latter makes people glad to be talking to you.
It is good to get rid of some words that lack any effort, or that show no concern. Just as that nurse preferred to hear “yes” instead of “yeah”, most people prefer the natural term over the slang/casual form. We want to deal with people who care about what they are saying.
Mark Shead says
That is how I feel about curse words. People with a mastery of English can insult, deride, etc. without using curse words. Curse words tend to be the “easy way out”. Basically they involve saying, “I want to emphasis my point, so I’ll curse.” This is intellectual laziness as there are plenty of ways to emphasis your point using other words and curse words can take some of the edge off what you are saying because it is easier to notice the curse words than the actual idea behind your statement.
Jamie Ross (Mining Man) says
Great advice. Most of us will either consciously or naturally change our vocabulary based on the occasion / people involved (ie with friends vs with our managers). But the risk is that we sometimes may not correctly pick who we are talking to, or may slip in some less-formal vocabulary into the wrong situation.
Well done for the way you are educating your children.
I’d compare it with my theory on how you dress for a situation, it’s usually better to slightly over-dress for an occasion than to underdress. For example if you arrive at a party in a tie and everyone else is in open shirts, you probably look the best! The other way around though and you will look out of place. The same with our language, better to be more formal and proper than others than the other way around.
Mark Shead says
I agree with your assessment of how to dress. Also, you can usually take off your tie and put it in your pocket or set your jacket on a chair if you feel you look a bit to formal and are putting people off. The only exception I can think of is if you are presenting yourself as some type of extreme creative resource or artist. There are some expectations about how creative people dress (or don’t dress). A mural artist that shows up in a suit and tie might seem less skilled than one who comes wearing a black turtleneck and jeans.
Jamie Ross (Mining Man) says
Good point!! Appropriateness is the key!
Craig Thomas says
Nice post. I find it easy to watch what I say when writing – but talking is a different story. It all depends how comfortable I am with someone, I tend to add ‘un-preferable’ words in a situation like that. But, I do agree – words are important.
Good point. But what is it that you are trying to accomplish here? Is it to impress? If so, then studying the GRE wordlists is the way to go. Unfortunately, no one will have a clue what you are saying. Is it to make the other person feel comfortable and welcomed? Then say such peon words as ‘yeah’ and ‘crap’ would do the trick. You objective in a conversation is very important to the word choice you use. You speak Spanish in Vera Cruz, Russian in Moscow, Clearly in an Interview, and Casually with your friends.
Mark Shead says
Have you seen the GRE word list? It isn’t exactly full of obscure words. 75% of them are something the average person should be able to define and the other 25% they can probably infer from context. But that isn’t really my point.
I’m not talking about using language to try to confuse people. I’m talking about recognizing that the words you use will influence people’s opinion of you. Consider the following two sentences:
“Yeah, I’ve been to that restaurant. Their food is crap!”
“Yes, I’ve been to that restaurant. Their food is horrible!”
The second sentence isn’t going to make anyone feel less comfortable than the first. No one is going to have trouble understanding the second sentence. However, lets say you are trying to match up both of these sentences with who said them. Their are two “suspects”. One has an IQ of 125 and the other has an IQ of 90. Which sentence would you assume was spoken by the person with an IQ of 90? Most people would choose the “yeah, crap” vocab user as having a lower IQ.
Taking care to keep your language smart can do a lot to make you look smart. When it comes to opportunities, people’s perception of your intelligence is just as important (if not more) than your actual intelligence.
I tend to be somewhat bloody-minded about language. I take great pleasure in spread the word ‘like’ liberally and inappropriately throughout conversations, particularly if people are speaking formally.
And souding intelligent be damned, I had a university professor who spoke like a hippy (…well a hippy that was telling you about complicated algorithms).
It is more likely that you would sound uneducated, and from my own experience you actually have to be uneducated to sound it.
Mark Shead says
I’m not exactly sure what you are trying to say, but is that the point?