On catering to the common, the average, the palatable by the masses at large, and raising the bar

In a recent conversation, I was distracted by a quote, attributed to Barbara Corcoran to “beware of people who use big words”.  The big word in question was “assuage”.  I asked how Barbara defines “big words” and was told that it’s anything an average person would not use in daily conversation.  This exchange has left me puzzled.

I wasn’t born here, and so my English was very much learned, and not breastfed.  I have spent many of my early years in this country keenly aware of my foreignness, and at times, I still allow myself to feel a tinge of insecurity at my accent, which sounds far too harsh to my inner ear.  But maybe precisely because this language was not something I could ever take for granted, I feel a special affinity for people who have a gift for articulating an idea or telling a story well, and am still much more likely to indulge in an old classic than a hastily thrown together how to manifesto on any subject.  My reasons are of course my own, but I do think that we are all becoming a bit starved for those frown-worthy “big” words.  I also think that how we communicate affects how we think, at least I find myself incapable of separating the two.

So to me, there is something to be said for eloquence in speech and writing, especially in the day and age of communicating via hashtags and foursquare check-ins.

One well-placed word will resonate with me in a 140 character twitter update and will likely make me delve into a person’s profile.  At the very least, I’ll be intrigued enough to pause and think, and pausing for anything nowadays is the rarest form of acknowledgement.

We race through the tricks and tips and gadget reviews, swallowing gigs of information daily all in an attempt to either make our business or personal lives less labor intensive.  We push for maximum efficiency in all things and yet we seem to gain far too few moments that call for reflection, for pause, that aren’t tainted by the immediate desire for the next paycheck or an artifice of some sort.  If I am being completely honest, I think we invest far too much energy, time and brain power into spitting or consuming nuggets of wisdom in ever smaller and more digestible bites, and at the end of the day, my fear is that we are creating less astute readers in our audiences, less savvy business partners in our clients, and fewer and fewer real relationships and connections that matter on a level real friendships do, or ought to.

To bring this back to business, if we are told that we must speak to our site visitors as if they were in sixth grade, we will inevitably attract the audience that functions on sixth-grade level.  If you are selling skateboards, movie tickets or video games – sixth-grade vocabulary level might make sense.  But if you are selling real estate, for the sake of examples, how many sixth graders are currently looking to buy or sell a property?

The advice dished out above to speak plainly, if you will, is often predicated on the supposed existence of an “average person”.

I have yet to meet one of those apparently ubiquitous life forms.  There is nothing average about anyone I interact with, and if I had to describe each person I know via my online or off line relationships, that description would be unique to them.  We might or might not share a similar vocabulary, but I wouldn’t dream of expecting any party to a conversation to change the way they speak for my benefit.  To me, that would over-step the very bounds of a relationship.  Even more importantly, I might just get offended if someone appears to have calculated my grade-level in advance.

I find it ironic that some of the people pitching above referenced advice are also pitching the virtues of being transparent and authentic, and that they don’t see these as mutually exclusive.  Would we not all be better off mastering our various crafts on our terms?  And if we must measure the successes or failures of each endeavor or effort, lets measure things that matter, and cater our presentations, including the words we use, to clients we are actually trying to attract, instead of the masses at large who supposedly make up the androgynous average-ness that cumulatively outnumbers actual people, prospects, clients and friends.

My bit of advice, for what it’s worth: use big words or little words but stop ‘grading’ your online communication via something as useless as a Lexile score.  It’s impossible to build relationships under false pretenses, no matter how many tricks you have up your virtual sleeve.  The words you throw into the universe are the only thing people who don’t know you will connect with or not.  So choose your words wisely, but for reasons that matter.

None of these include the number of syllables or frequency of use by an average person, whatever or whoever that might be.

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23 Responses to On catering to the common, the average, the palatable by the masses at large, and raising the bar
  1. Tawanna
    November 26, 2012 | 6:37 am

    I think this is one of the most important information for me.

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  2. Chara
    November 16, 2012 | 12:08 am

    When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and
    now each time a comment is added I get several e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Bless you!

  3. Beth
    November 14, 2012 | 7:30 am

    I have observed that good real estate agents
    all over the place are warming up to FSBO Advertising.
    They are knowing that it’s more than simply placing a sign in the front yard. It’s really about building interactions
    with these retailers who one of these days will become customers.
    So, once you give your time and effort to aiding these retailers go it alone – the “Law regarding Reciprocity” kicks in.
    Thanks for your blog post.

  4. Will Shepherd
    November 13, 2012 | 2:40 pm

    Forgive me for stating the obvious to B Corcoran but there are two things I simply cannot ignore here:

    1.) “…anything an average person uses in daily conversation…” completely depends on said “average person’s level of intellect as well as upbringing, colloquialisms, and regionalism as well as their mastery of the English language not to mention how and when they learned the language or how the English might translate from their native tongue.


    2.) Every word is a “new word” or a “big word” until you learn it (or use it) for the first time.

  5. Kelly Mitchell
    January 7, 2012 | 2:04 pm

    Inna you always speak so eloquently and from the heart. You put it in terms that are not only interesting but thought provoking. I tend to agree with you. There is no average. Everyone has their own level of big words they can bring into a conversation. I’m surprised someone actually defined it ‘using the term average person’. What is average? Is it socio, economic, education, is it by experience? I think those who consider themselves ‘above average’ because of the number of large words they have in their repertoire are fooling themselves. Language is for communicating. If you do that well who cares how many big words you use? 😉

    • Inna Hardison
      January 7, 2012 | 10:45 pm

      Kelly – you always make me smile:-) I’ve been asking the “what’s average” question for years. It seems to be statistically important and yet oh so elusive that I hope I never actually find the answer to it.

  6. Karen
    January 6, 2012 | 4:36 pm

    These two pieces of advice have always stumped me:
    1. Be yourself online. Be transparent.
    2. You must write on a 5th or 6th grade level or people won’t read it.
    Really? They won’t? Are American’s that incompetent and lazy? I don’t really think so.
    Inna, this is very well said and proves that words are meant to be used to communicate, not just to fill up space. Thanks for some (much needed) personal affirmation,too:)

    • Inna Hardison
      January 7, 2012 | 10:48 pm

      Karen – agreed. I don’t understand how those two are not mutually exclusive… As for people reading stuff or not – I’ve my own albeit statistically irrelevant data to state that people will read anything that appeals to them. The trick, if we want to call it that, is to appeal to people you actually want to have reading your stuff.:-)

      I can’t imagine catering to 5th or 6th grade level, not because I am a snob (I’m not), but because it would make for uninteresting conversations for the subjects that intrigue me.

  7. Amy Salisbury
    January 6, 2012 | 3:22 pm

    Inna, You are much too hard on yourself! Having spoken over the phone with you several times, rest assured – you are very easy to understand, accent or no.

    As always, your post is thoughtful, honest and well written. Your point of view echoes my own. Once again, thank you for stating it so well!

    • Inna Hardison
      January 6, 2012 | 3:32 pm

      Good to see you here, Amy. And thank you. Happy to agree on this (as we tend to on most things). Oh, and Happy belated New Year!

  8. Ron Jesser
    January 6, 2012 | 1:42 pm

    Inna my friend you always put it so well. We always try to keep it simple and write to those who read our posts and for the most part that means using the KISS format. Thanks for expressing it so well.

    • Inna Hardison
      January 6, 2012 | 3:36 pm

      Ron – simplicity in all things is great in theory. I think even the far too overused KISS has sadly been misinterpreted to equate simple with dumb, as far as language is concerned. I am all for exactitude, if you will in thought, and to me that requires a bit more than sixth grade English course.

  9. Josette Skilling
    January 5, 2012 | 6:40 pm

    It’s not the size of the words but the caliber. You are supercalifragilisticexpealidocious 🙂

  10. J Michael
    January 5, 2012 | 5:59 pm

    The best teachers meet people where they are and bring them to the next level. Puffery for the sake of “pontificating” or to hide what you really are wanting to say is wrong! This post came from a raise the bar forum where someone used the word assumage. My thought is this word was used to hide the word appeasing because in a raise the bar forum we would want to be doing something to just appease our clients. That is my take!

    • David Stratuik
      January 5, 2012 | 6:44 pm

      Your comment about the best teachers is accurate, but how do people move to the “next level” if the bar is set at such a low standard? At some point people have to be pushed and challenged, and they will often rise to the challenge if you give them the opportunity. I don’t think you should grab a thesaurus and try to use as many big words as possible, just write the way that feels natural. Promoting the idea that the average person can’t figure out a couple of ‘big’ words in a post is a terrible precedent to set.

    • Inna Hardison
      January 6, 2012 | 3:43 pm

      J Michael – I think you misunderstood the point of my post. I would never advise anyone to do anything inauthentic, and using big words for the sake of “puffery or pontificating” would certainly be inauthentic to me. This isn’t about big words or little words, J Michael. It’s indeed purely and simply about us having the balls to just bloody be ourselves, even when being ourselves goes very much against crappy advice of catering to a specific grade level, and even when such advice comes from people with authority in our respective fields.

  11. Dave Cole
    January 5, 2012 | 5:40 pm

    As far as I’m concerned, we should all be looking up words on a daily basis. That’s what makes the English language awesome.

    I cringe every time I read an article that says to “dumb down” your language on emails or in business correspondence. Let’s “smart up” our audience and ourselves!

    • Kris Maroney
      January 5, 2012 | 7:20 pm

      As a teenager, during summer break, I actually began reading the dictionary in between reading books. The more books I devoured, the more often I looked up definitions of words. My peers poked fun at me, but the mockery stopped when I scored well on the verbal section of the SAT in my Junior year. It is estimated there are over 750,000 words in the English language. I feel we should always be curious and seeking new knowledge every day. Even if it is just to learn a new word, then try and use it that day in conversation. Here’s a word that we’ll likely never hear in conversation or durin g the Scripps National Spelling Bee:
      “Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis”, referring to a lung disease caused by silica dust, is the longest word in official English language dictionaries with 45 letters.

      • Inna Hardison
        January 6, 2012 | 3:39 pm

        Kris – thank you for the thoughtful comment (and using that ridiculously long word). 🙂 I have a kiddo who is 11 and whose vocabulary is quite probably substantially richer than mine. He has struggled with expressing himself with his peers and it turns out decided it was a lot simpler for him to tailor his speech to his audience. I’d rather he didn’t feel he had to do that, certainly not at this age and hopefully not ever.

    • Inna Hardison
      January 6, 2012 | 3:27 pm

      Let’s “smart up” – love it, Dave. 🙂

  12. elizabeth Cooper-golden
    January 5, 2012 | 5:36 pm

    Inna, You are such a gifted writer. You know SO many large words. And you use you large words well.

    I think it is so important to be ourselves. As you know, I know few large words, lol. I write from my heart however and my audience likes “me”. I think there would be a bit of disappointment when any of us finally did meet our readers and we aren’t who we “claim to be” by our written word. You would be quite surprised if I acted like a sesquipedalianist online when I”m actually not. It wouldn’t take long to figure out, especially since I am very garrulous. Ha!

    Great article from one whom I admire and love your “big words”.

    • Inna Hardison
      January 6, 2012 | 3:30 pm

      Coop – as always, you think far too highly of me. Sadly, I am one of those quasi-intellectual types. I laugh at fart jokes, can’t stand Charles Dickens and a slew of others, and the depth of my analyses of most things is shallow indeed.

      But I do love words. Big ones, little ones, inoffensively medium-sized ones. Words matter, and I seeing so much effort devoted to eroding the language pisses me off to no end.

      I’d like my freaking “U”s back to, btw:-)

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