On using simple language in conversation

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  1. The purpose of language is to bring people together.
  2. People sometimes use language to separate.
  3. Simplicity in language is the best way to bring people together.
  4. Simplicity in language is the best way to make people feel what you feel.

The purpose of language is to bring people together.

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We use language to communicate our ideas and feelings to another person. Whether I’m trying to explain the concept of a flying car (an idea) or how groggy I feel in the morning (a feeling), the goal is to transfer what’s going inside you and put it inside someone else. You want them to understand the idea you have or feel the feeling you felt; language is the bridge away from loneliness. When language succeeds, therefore, two people come to share something that they didn’t share before. They understand each other. They’re now on the same wavelength. That’s how language brings people together.

People sometimes use language to separate.

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Sometimes, people use language to create in- and out-groups. You have to know terms like “compound interest,” “credit default swap,” “derivatives,” “hedge fund,” liquidity” to become an investment banker. You can’t be part of the group if you don’t know and use those terms. Sometimes, these in- and out-groups are a source of pride via identity: you feel good knowing you’re part of a special group that you had to work hard to gain entry into. Other times, these in- and out-groups are a source of confusion: people outside the group feel like they can’t understand you, so they start to think the group must not be for them. In the worst case, these out-groups lose out: everyone needs to understand money, but investment bankers make it confusing, so most people don’t learn how money works, and they end up doing stupid things with their money. For better or worse, language can separate people.

Simplicity in language is the best way to bring people together.

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[Simplest words]→[Sweet spot where understanding happens]→[Hardest words]

If your goal isn’t to separate people but instead bring them closer to you using your language, as a rule of thumb then, you want to use the simplest possible words you can use without sacrificing understanding. You don’t know everything about the person you’re talking to. It’s safer to use words that they’re more likely to know. The [simplest words] in language are the ones that everyone learns first: it, run, stupid, laugh, smile, up, down. The [hardest words] in language are the ones that the smallest groups of people know but everyone else doesn’t: ipso facto, Gregorian chant, obfuscate. The [sweet spot where understanding happens] is somewhere in the middle: after all, sometimes the simplest words just can’t explain your ideas or your feelings because you’re a complicated person, and most of the time the hardest words just can’t explain your ideas or your feelings because the person you’re talking to doesn’t really know them. So, the [sweet spot] is usually somewhere in the middle. Within that [sweet spot], you also have a range of simplest words to hardest. You want to choose the simplest words within that [sweet spot], not the simplest words at the extreme left. More people will understand you if you speak from that point; that’s how you maximize your chances of bringing people closer to you. That’s how you bridge the gap away from loneliness.

Simplicity in language is the best way to make people feel what you feel.

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“You’re confusing me so much right now!” “I am extremely perturbed with your behavior right now!” Most people who read these two sentences will feel the confusion harder with the first sentence than the second. Simpler language tends to cut to the heart of things faster. You can use harder words if you need to explain more complex ideas or feelings, but always lean on the side of simpler words when you can. You make people feel more there. And feeling is the beginning of action. That’s all I have to say on that.

 
 

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