The other day Sergiy (my Ukrainian ESL Skype student) and I worked on a lesson from his book entitled “Everyday English: Softening the Message.” We discussed differences among the following:
Can you help me?
I wonder if you could help me?
I was wondering if you could possibly help me?
“Notice,” I told Sergiy, “when we are being more direct, we tend to use less words.”
* * *
After the lesson, I went to a yoga class taught by a middle-aged yogi I’ll call Matthew. Usually he’s very mellow — sort of a “do what your body tells you to do” type of teacher — but today he was working us really hard. The woman in front of me sweated so much she looked like she’d just stepped out of the shower.
“As you come into downward dog,” he told us towards the end of class, “lead with your kidneys and let them draw your body upwards.”
Hmm, I thought. I don’t actually know where my kidneys are. But I tried as best I could to lead with them.
He walked to the girl next to me. “Lead with your kidneys,” he told her.
“I don’t know what you mean by that,” she huffed.
“Just tighten your abs.”
“Oh,” she said, and I bet she was wondering why he hadn’t said that in the first place.
As everyone was packing up their mats, Matthew asked me what I’d thought of the class.
What I wanted to say was that it had been a really good work-out, but I felt like I couldn’t say that. I didn’t want to make it sound like I was comparing his yoga class to an aerobics power-hour at the gym. I know that feeling the burn isn’t the point of yoga.
So I flipped through my catalogue of new-age vocabulary, trying to find a word that would mean “like an aerobics class but more spiritual.” I couldn’t think of anything.
“It was very…invigorating,” I ended up saying, but that wasn’t true at all. I didn’t feel invigorated. I felt tired. His class had worn me out.
Lately I’ve been realizing how often I soften my message.
“Sometimes I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me,” Paul said the other day. “I know you’re trying to not hurt my feelings, but I wish you’d just say what you mean because I get confused.”
He’s right. There’s no sense in softening the message if it means people don’t get the message at all.
So I’m making an effort to be more direct: to figure out first what it is I want to say, and then to find the most effective way to communicate it.
I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, but I also don’t want to end up saying something that is so vague or convoluted that it loses all meaning.
And I think the same goes for writing. Be direct. Be clear. There are exceptions, but for the most part, say exactly what you mean.
I remember a grad school class in which we looked at a description of a character crying. It went something like this: Her eyes were two pools of water, and as she blinked, the crystalline tears rolled down her cheeks, dripping off her chin.
“Why not just say, “she cried?”” the professor said. “It’s cleaner.”
At the time, this piece of advice shocked me. Wasn’t good writing “descriptive as hell?” Was it possible that a two word sentence could be considered better writing than a long one filled with descriptive language?
I’ve come to realize that it is possible, and usually preferable. Being direct is usually the best way to convey your meaning, and as I told Sergiy, when we are being direct we tend to use less words.
So that’s all I’ll say. For now.