• June 3rd, 2020

Great and effective communication is not a competitive sport

Way back at high school, my friends and I struggled to keep pace with a self-inflicted competition of using jawbreakers in our conversations. The dictionary defines jawbreaker as a word that is difficult to pronounce.

 But still, we found unspeakable joy in the big words. They gave us a sense of achievement; the assurance that we were eating books! Rather like Ugwu in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, who is entranced by the English language. 

“He had always thought that Master’s English could not be compared to anybody’s, not Professor Ezeka whose English one could hardly hear, or Okeoma, who spoke English as if he were speaking Igbo, with the same cadences and pauses, or Patel, whose English was a faded lilt.”

   Our contests were so fierce, so consuming, that we invested in “word power” notebooks. In the notebooks, we dutifully and excitedly recorded every new word that we encountered. We did not worry about meanings; just the sounds of the words. 

For example, while I may not recall much else of the then-prime minister of Zimbabwe’s prize-giving day speech at my school in 1982, I can still clearly hear “ambidextrous” in my ears. And the rapturous and delirious clapping that followed.  

   As we moved closer to our IGCSE examinations, our competition suffered rude interruptions. One expatriate English teacher would mock our pretences by casually observing that, “Jonathan, Nhamo, Nelson, Nhlanhla and Chantelle will get Ds in the examinations if they keep up their hard work; the rest of you, Es, if you apply yourselves more seriously.”

We could have easily dismissed the teacher’s attempts at being a clairvoyant or prophet. But he would add salt to injury by making rather bold statements about some of Zimbabwe’s celebrated black writers: “I have just finished reading XYZ’s book, not bad; except that he needed a teacher with a red pen to assist him.” 
   Years later, I worked for the one-time prime minister who visited my school. I was finally getting to appreciate that words should communicate and not put people off. He was then president of Zimbabwe. As he looked through the speech draft in front of him, he asked about phytosanitary: what did it mean, how was it pronounced, and could we not have used a simpler word?

   When the responsible ministry indicated that it was the most appropriate word for the occasion, the president asked for dictionaries (yes, plural) to confirm the pronunciation of the word. I guess one might call it fact-check in today’s world of fake news.

I have revisited the subject of words or diction after reading an inspirational post titled “Why God made our mouths.” In the article, Scott Hubbard asks whether “the world is a better place for the seven thousand words we speak each day – or might it be worse off?”

   Seven thousand words is apparently the new average. Some scientists, however, still argue that women use more words per day than men (one study puts the ratio at 13, 000 words for women against 7,000 for men; another says ‘men and women use roughly the same number of words a day: 16, 215 for women compared to men’s 15, 662’).

I suggest that the numbers may not matter in the end. It is the message. Whether it is a website, a press release, newsletter or newspaper column, the golden rule is that readers should not face the torture of re-reading articles multiple times in order to understand.

   Allow me to throw in Nikelle Murphy’s assertion for reflection: “it is a long-held belief by many researchers that women will tend to talk more in situations where they’re sustaining relationships…men, on the other hand, tend to talk more in situations where power and influence are at stake.”

Staff Reporter
2019-06-21 10:16:29 | 11 months ago

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