WSJ: How to Prevent Verbal Gaffes

"We are all so sad. Plus we got homework."
All of the linguistics blogs I read have referenced "How to Prevent Verbal Gaffes," an article by Jeffrey Zaslow published July 7th in the WSJ. The article weirdly pulled at my heartstrings. The most quoted quote from the article (and my new mantra):

[I]f we remain keenly aware of personally dangerous subjects that might trigger inappropriate remarks, we're more apt to stop ourselves before subconscious thoughts are verbalized.
Which leads the way for:
To understand what's on the tip of our tongues, it's helpful to reflect on what's in our hearts. That's why language researchers and crisis consultants suggest reevaluating our childhood role models (and their prejudices) and paying close attention to our listeners' body language (do they tense up when we talk?). 
The assumption here is that we always mean what we say, whether we know the meaning of what we say or not. It implies that we have great depth, but it's also an assumption I have difficulty explaining when I'm trying to communicate with someone else. How can I explain the link: When a person refers to someone they don't like as a "stinky clown," it implies that they think clowns are stinky, and thus that they view clowns in a bad light. So that they not only dislike the person they are talking about, but also clowns. It makes sense to me, but 95% of the time, it doesn't make sense to the person I'm talking to. I wish I had the tools to explain it better.


A lot of people get mad when others judge them for careless statements and a lot of people feel guilty about it. I definitely fall on the guilt-feeling side, but I often wonder if others' negative reactions to misspoken words are always justified. There's always a lot of room for misunderstanding. I think that what sounds like an insult or smear might be well-met with a good-intentioned question. My favorite thing to say when I don't understand something (which is quite often): "I'm sorry. I don't understand. Could you explain it to me/Could you repeat that/Could you say it in a different way?" Most of the time people think I'm slow for asking, but it makes me feel like a good communicator and helps me exercise empathy, instead of passively experiencing it.


I really like this article because I often have trouble verbalizing how important language is to me. While Zaslow might not explain the importance of the words we use in the way that I think about it, he does a great job of explaining how it feels to be on the wrong side of language and how (I think) it should feel when you find out you've thoughtlessly said something hurtful to someone else.

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