It’s easy to use standard terms to describe events. They summarize, squashing deeds and experiences into neat packages. Words like awesome, sinful, and evil are common, so most people will catch the essence of your message: At least, you hope they will.
There’s a problem, though. Generic terms can confuse, failing to deliver their intended meaning. What’s more, conversations often end when you use well-known words to summarize complex events. Everyone assumes they understand, and they no longer delve for the truth.
Why generic terms aren’t always sufficient
General expressions are non-specific; they don’t describe details, and they often have several meanings. We think we know what they denote when we hear them, but our perspective colors what they imply.
Generic terms confuse because they are:
•Broad (they have several meanings)
•Interpreted by individuals
•Halt communication (everyone assumes they know all there is to know)
•Stop people investigating events and understanding them
•Gloss over the truth
Examples of the implications of using generic words
If you just want to give the gist of your experience on vacation, ‘wonderful,’ provided you had a great time, sums it up and leaves you free to move to a different conversation or destination.
If you describe a murderer as evil, though, although plenty of people will nod their head in agreement, the conversation isn’t productive in a progressive sense.
There’s no need to look at what you mean by ‘evil.’ There’s no reason to discover the specific details that led to the murder or question whether society has anything to do with what happened.
As a result, the crime ends with the murderer’s sentence. No insights into how to change society to solve relevant problems ensue, and people don’t learn from what’s occurred.
The responsibility for a murder rests with the murderer. But we are all a part of society and have a responsibility to see how we can make crimes less likely to occur and create a humane, caring, safe culture in which to live.
Even the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are limited. Imagine, for example, you tell a chef the meal he cooked was good. ‘Good’ doesn’t explain what made the dish pleasing, so the chef does not know you loved his use of spices and the way the food was steaming hot when it arrived at your table. He also doesn’t know you didn’t enjoy the slimy texture of the leeks cooked in oil.
Using ‘good’ lets you gloss over this small detail. It makes life more comfortable because you don’t complain. But your use of ‘good’ stops the chef from refining his dish, and you don’t help him or his future customers. Apply the same idea to vital subjects, and you can see how generic words reduce learning on a wide scale.
Words have power
“But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.”
— George Gordon, Lord Byron
Words influence people adversely, not only when they are inaccurate but also when they cannot describe events sufficiently. When used, they stop involvement in subjects and stunt wisdom. But you can ask questions to ignite progression.
How asking questions helps
•Facilitates further discussion
•Widens the scale of information
•Helps society see its part in events (take responsibility)
•Increases learning to aid progress
What you can do
When someone uses a generic term, ask them to provide details about experiences, opinions, and events. Encourage them to be specific and give more information before you form a viewpoint. You’ll gather data and help the individual examine subjects. As a result, you will inspire understanding and may produce solutions to problems.
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