Monday, January 16, 2012

The Art of Saying Nothing

[Johnathan Clayborn]
Communication is one of life’s great essential skills. Without communication it would be impossible for you to get your thoughts and ideas across to others. You can use communication to educate, persuade, and relate to other people. However, you can also use communication to deceive, mislead, and attack others. 

We have a lot of metaphors to describe the way that people communicate: long-winded, blunt, to-the-point, embellished, flowery, full of hot air, direct, and so on. All of these different traits can be useful in certain circumstances. For example, if you are speaking with the military it may be best to use a direct, blunt approach and just “shoot from the hip” and say what you need to say. On the other hand, if you need to speak with the academic or scientific world or a politician…especially a politician, a long-winded, embellished, flowery approach may be better. 

We all know people who really have nothing to say. Sometimes they quite literally sit there silent saying nothing. Other times they speak, but their thoughts are disjointed and do not make sense. Still other times they “talk in circles” providing no further explanation or going back to an original argument that didn’t make sense to begin with. We like to compare the speech of these people to fecal matter by saying that they’re full of it. 

There are some people who make a living off of saying nothing. Politicians are one group. They routinely bedazzle us with their speeches and spew a lot of emptiness and nothing from their mouths and we buy into it. It’s a deliberate attempt to appease us to get more votes. Take President Obama for example. He is definitely mastered the art of saying nothing and making it believable. Either that, or he needs a grammar lesson on the definition of specific words. Whatever else the president may be, I think that it would be a mistake to call him uneducated. As such, any misuse of specific words on his part should be taken as deliberate. So let’s look at some specific words of his, notably “top priority”. 

To the rest of the world a “top priority” is something that is being given the utmost consideration, ahead of all other projects. The dictionaries and thesauruses of the world largely agree. According to the thesaurus it’s a synonym for urgent, paramount, vital, immediate and many other “get this done right now” type of words.  The dictionaries define top priority as “something being given merit or attention prior to completing other alternatives or tasks”, “item of the highest importance”, and “to be done before anything else”. To President Obama “top priority” means “something to say to the voters to keep them happy. 

Now, of course, those of you who know me know that I don’t go around making such claims without objective proof backing it up. Let’s take a look at some of Obama’s speeches from when he took office. On February 11th, 2009 Obama said that Consumer Protection was “a top priority”. Then, on May 1st he said that H1N1 Vaccinations were a top priority. Then, on May 28th it was Hurricane Preparedness. The very next day is was support for military families. On August 17th it was ending homelessness for veterans. Almost exactly two months later it was strengthening ties with Canada and Mexico. On November 5th it was Environmental Protection. On December 3rd it was increasing exports by small businesses. On February 1st, 2010 it was Student Loan reform. Then, two days later it was health assistance to 9/11 First Responders. Exactly three weeks after that it was education reform. On April 17th he said that Free Trade Agreements were a top priority. And then the very next day Energy Security was a top priority. Clearly, these words are meant to mislead and deceive. Now, to be fair, Obama is not the first president to have done this, and unless the crackpots are right about the world ending this year, he won’t be the last. He’s just the President that’s in office and he’s happened to provided us with a convenient tagline to follow his statements with. 

But, others besides politicians have mastered the art of saying nothing. Marketing and Advertising Reps have also mastered this art quite well. In fact, their product sales depend on misdirection and “cloak and dagger” communication. Let’s examine some of my favorite examples for a moment. 

AT&T is guilty of saying nothing. Their tagline for the last few years has been “more bars in more places”.  Okay, that’s great. But what, exactly, do they mean by that. Do they mean that they have more bars in more places than the other guys have bars in places, or do they mean that they have more bars in more places than they had bars in places at this time last year? It’s deliberately vague for a reason. 

Listerine and a large number of other dental care products claim to “fight plaque”, “fight gum disease” or “fight gingivitis”. However, none of these products claim to “prevent” these things. None of them claim to “reverse” these things, or cure them. They only claim to “fight” them. What I picture here is mental image that runs through my mind of a Listerine bottle climbing into a ring with this enormous plaque monster. The Listerine bottle hits it once, and then the plaque monster kills it. Technically, it did live up to the company’s claim; it did fight the plaque. But fighting and wining are two completely different things. 

There’s a taxi cab company around here that has the words “fast radio dispatch” emblazoned on their bumpers. What, exactly, does this mean? Does it mean that the dispatch is done whenever the heck the dispatcher gets around to it, but it’s done using a radio that’s fast? Or does it mean that the dispatcher quickly dispatches the call on a normal speed radio? 

And then there’s a car stereo chain out here called Audio Express. They say “no one installs more car stereos for $1 than Audio Express”. A bold claim, but let’s take a look at what they’re really saying. Are they saying that they install the most car stereos? No. Are they saying that they install the best car stereos? No. All they’re saying is that no one installs more of them for $1. That’s probably true. Most other stores around here either do it for free, or they charge more than a $1. But those are automatically excluded in their statement because it’s designed to be misleading. 

Most of the cell phone companies claim to have “the largest network”. I’ve always been curious, by what definition is their network the largest? They can’t all be the largest…or can they? Perhaps, the network with the most users is the largest? Or maybe it’s the network with the most towers? Or perhaps it’s the network that physically covers the largest geographic area? 

I’ve also heard the tagline “the better choice” before in several ad campaigns. Instantly I think, “okay, great. Do you mind telling me what the best choice is?” 

A third type of person who uses the art of saying nothing is the argument seeker. We all know a few of these people, whether we realize that they are one or not. Some of these people are truly narcissistic, whereas others just dislike being wrong. I have many friends who discuss politics. Many of them are quite capable of keeping the discussions calm, peaceable, and objective. However, every now and then there are those who say nothing and do so repeatedly and aggressively. Instead of proving their point with fact or opinion, they simply restate their original argument. When you ask them about the claims that they level, they say things “well, of course I know where to find that data, but if I just tell you where to find it I’ll be doing you a disservice” or “how are you going to learn if I keep giving you the answers?” , etc. It seems a little peculiar, especially when those people are protesting for other parties to explain their data but yet they refuse to disclose their own data. 

I implore you, dear readers, as you communicate with others, ask yourselves, am I actually saying something, or I am simply saying nothing loudly? 

And, as a closing thought, because it’s related to today’s topic; Taylor Mali on Communication:


No comments:

Post a Comment

These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.