Because Words DO Matter

I recently attended a press event and left dumbfounded by the remarks of the presiding dignitaries. The vast majority either didn’t make sense at all, or were essentially vacuous in terms of actionable promises. Since literally bolting from the event, I have found myself pondering the importance of words as they relate to community development.

I have already confessed my general fascination with words in an early post, but in this case I’m reflecting on the lack of intellectual and ethical discipline that they often convey. Just recently I was accused in a LinkedIn group of being too academic and using “the turgid style that seems to say: “I’m smarter than you are.” The critic urged me to say what I mean. While I admit that I have often been accused of being difficult to understand, I would argue that my intentions are at least noble. In choosing my words, whether verbal or written, I strive and struggle for clarity and precision. In the world of higher education, which is my home, and more specifically in the realm of research, we are left to constantly defend the veracity of our assertions, and so we take our words very seriously. Whether in peer reviewed articles, presentations, or meetings, our words are scrutinized for logic and proof, and accordingly they serve as the very foundation on which our relationships and reputations are built.

I realize that Higher Education is not the real world, and that many “normal” people would argue that academics get lost in words and their meanings. Yet I strongly believe that regardless of your background or professional culture, words DO matter and should be treated with more care and thoughtfulness. And I would assert that this is especially true when we deal with matters of community development.

Why? Well, for one reason words are simply not interchangeable. It’s true that we have multiple words to describe similar ideas or concepts, but each connotes nuanced distinctions that are subtle yet important enough to be named. The differences between a partner and a customer, an opportunity and a contract, collaboration and commitment all become extremely important as projects play out, grants run their course, or tensions begin to rise. The ability to articulate one’s goals, needs, and boundaries in a way that is respectful yet clear can make all the difference in project outcomes and the ultimate longevity of relationships.

This is especially the case in community development where organizations are seeking to help and add value in humanitarian ways, while at the same time attending to their own budgetary needs and agendas. Even when all parties are nonprofit with no direct gains or monetary interests, the complexities of their missions and funding sources and associated political lifelines guarantee that ethical conflicts and landmines will abound. Without the ability to clearly articulate and maintain one’s position using carefully selected words with their associated meanings, the promise of successfully navigating the treacherous waters of community development will remain dismal at best.

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About mbhuber2013

Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning and Director of Experiential Learning Network at the University at Buffalo

5 responses to “Because Words DO Matter”

  1. goshin2013 says :

    Ah, the burden of being the smartest person in the room.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Bruce Bucklin says :

    I really enjoyed this post. I think the situation that led you to write it is all to common. Becoming a dignitary in our society has no meaningful prerequisites. In too many positions, intelligence and experience are not what you find. It is most often a popularity contest or whoever spends the most money and gets the most attention. And yes, I am thinking primarily about politicians, but there are plenty of other examples. It is a sad and often frustrating situation for those who do value words and their usage. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


  3. Angela Hintz says :

    I agree with Bruce’s comments above. However, I see another aspect of it as well. In the engineering world, theoretically, the best way to communicate is to state the facts, conclusions and recommendations in a brief, yet clear, manner. However, I have found that management of firms often do not heed those same principles in their communications with employees. Just yesterday, I received an email that while using all of the standard business words and cliches, left the readers scratching their heads as to what it really was saying. This is proof that one can write paragraphs and paragraphs of text and narrative, but if the point is not clear, it could be detrimental. If people don’t understand the message that is being communicated to them, the default position is to “make something up”, which then creates its own problems. So, my mantra is to pick your words wisely with the aim of being understood.


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