When speaking, use your audience’s vocabulary, not your own

A four-year-old boy was eating an apple in the back seat of the car, when he asked, “Daddy, why is my apple turning brown?” “Because,” his dad explained, “after you ate the skin off, the meat of the apple came into contact with the air, which caused it to oxidize, thus changing the molecular structure and turning it into a different color.”

There was a long silence. Then the son asked softly, “Daddy, are you talking to me?”

In the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, democratic nominee John Kerry said he felt the need to offer “a bold, progressive internationalism that stands in stark contrast to the too often belligerent and myopic unilateralism of the Bush administration.” Huh?

A local school district’s community questionnaire said, “The educational system should be organized and conducted so as to achieve maximum cost-benefit results from efficiencies in process and economies of scale within size limitations which will make units of the system responsive and accountable to parents and citizens.” Presumably, this was written by a human, but I wonder. 

The meaning of these statements may have been clear in the mind of the speaker, but the hearers were confused.

If you’re a physician talking to physicians, or a philosopher talking to philosophers, go ahead and use your profession’s jargon. But if you’re addressing a more diverse audience, use their language and vocabulary. 

When asked to describe his writing style, American novelist Elmore Leonard said, “I try to leave out the parts that readers skip.” In like manner, when we speak to others, leave out the parts and the words they don’t understand.

My dog Buddy has some annoying idiosyncrasies, but I love him nevertheless

Also – One cabin left on the September British Isles cruise

Four years ago I started shopping for a dog. I wasn’t looking for a guard dog or a hunting dog. I just wanted a friend and companion. I considered all breeds, settled on a blonde golden retriever, and bought Buddy. 

Buddy is solid white—when running in the snow he disappears. He is a gentle giant—82 pounds of muscle—but so tender that my grandson often sticks his hand in Buddy’s mouth with no consequences. He’s my faithful friend. I usually spend the last 30 minutes of every evening with Buddy and Johnny, just sitting on the couch. He’s everything I want in a dog.

But he has one very frustrating, annoying idiosyncrasy. Sometimes, while walking around the house he gets “stuck” and becomes immobile; he freezes in place and cannot be moved. It takes time and gentle persuasion to get him past the hurdle. Here’s a picture of this happening on the stairs.  

But, he’s my beloved dog, so I accept his peculiarities. 

We face the same challenge in human relationships. We all have ticks—points of weirdness. When relating to other peoples’ idiosyncrasies, instead of being bothered by them and trying to correct them, perhaps we should just take a deep breath, accept them, and carry on. And hope others will give grace when we’re acting out our eccentricities. 

I’m an amateur artist, specializing in pedagogical art—art that teaches a lesson. I recently finished the painting shown below. When I show it to others, people immediately focus on the small black dot in the middle of the white canvas. Some ask if it is a mistake. The painting is an illustration of what I’m talking about in this post. In our relationships we often focus too much on the one or two aspects of a person’s personality that bother us, ignoring the vast amount of goodness they exhibit.  

Consider your closest relationships and identify what each person’s “black dot” is. Perhaps you should overlook it (and hope they overlook yours).

British Isles Cruise – September 14-29

If you’re interested in going on the fall Travel with Friends trip, let me know ASAP. There’s only one cabin left.  Here’s the brochure.

Understanding the thoughts of a mentally ill person

Years ago, Mary and I attended a concert at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. The audience was limited to 80 people who stood in a circle around an eclectic group of musicians (baritone soloist, flute, cello, percussion, clarinet, piano, violin, cello). They performed Eight Songs for a Mad King—a monodrama by composer Peter Maxwell Davies. The composition is based on the final years of King George III.

George III was King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1760 until his death in 1820. Throughout his reign, he had frequent episodes of mental illness. In his final decade, he became violently insane. He was diagnosed with chronic mania and dementia. He was blind and possibly deaf. The medical “treatments” he received would be considered torture today.

The music is based on conversations he allegedly had with his parrot during his years of insanity. It’s hard to listen to. The music is dissonant and unpredictable, the soloist wails and shrieks. The sounds often mimic those made by humans under extreme physical and mental duress.

At the reception following the performance, I visited with a woman who had also been in the audience. She asked me, “What did you think of the performance?” I said I didn’t enjoy it. Musically, it didn’t have form or beauty. It was chaotic, the sounds were disturbing, and the baritone soloist screamed, squealed, and howled. I wouldn’t even call it music. 

She paused for a moment, then said, “Sir, do you realize that the composition reflected the troubled thoughts of someone who is severely mentally ill? The sounds you heard are likely a good representation of the thoughts that George III had.”

Her statement gave me pause. I had totally misunderstood the purpose of the composition. 

I learned a significant lesson that day: I must learn to “think as other people may be thinking.” I must seek to understand how their mind works and then give margin and not judge.  

In the years since I first heard Eight Songs for a Mad King, it has served as a reminder that I must be empathetic and patient with people who suffer from mental illness. What thoughts does someone with schizophrenia have? How does major bipolar disorder or even minor depressive disorder affect one’s thinking? 

Here’s a YouTube video of a performance of the piece. Please listen to the entire composition. It will be hard to do. Most of you will stop after a few minutes. But remember that it represents a mind that struggles. 

On a regular basis, you and I come in contact with people who have similar struggles. We must seek to understand and respond with kindness.


Do things sooner rather than later

Several months ago, I explained to my eight-year-old grandson, Benjamin, the benefits of doing things sooner rather than later. It’s a simple thought: “Most tasks must be done sooner or later; it’s best to do them sooner.” He listened carefully and the concept found purchase in his mind.

He immediately applied the principle by doing his homework. Prior to our talk, we had to hound him to get his homework done. Now he takes the initiative. Instead of playing Minecraft on my phone during the hour drive to the lake house, he works on his homework. This is a miracle second only to the resurrection of Lazarus. And, if the persuasion holds and becomes a permanent habit, this lesson will change his life for the better.

The principle can be said another way: Don’t procrastinate. 

We are most tempted to procrastinate when faced with difficult, tedious, or unpleasant tasks. But instead of delaying the inevitable, be aggressive and get it done. Mark Twain said, “If your job is to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.”

Examples abound: filing your annual tax return, minor repairs to your home or car, writing a thank-you note, turning in a report at work, cleaning your bathroom, having a difficult conversation, planning an event that will happen a year from now.

If you’re able to make this principle part of your modus operandi, it actually becomes fun. Getting tasks done quickly can become a game you play. Reward yourself for got-it-done-sooner accomplishments. I just finished this post so I’m going to reward myself by taking Buddy for a walk.