Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sledgehammer Words

Words are tools that we use to clarify our concepts, express our emotions and persuade others to our positions. We use those tools to craft mental models which we deliver to our listener. The better the job we do with those tools, the more effectively we can communicate our message.

The words we use every day are our basic tools. Like screwdrivers and pliers, these words are simple but versatile, performing adequately for most tasks. Occasionally we might want to use a more esoteric word for a specific task, as we might pull out a pair of bent needle nose pliers when that tool is just right for the job.

The better your selection of tools, the better job you can do at making a beautiful and effective work. In a pinch you can use a slot-head screwdriver to set a Phillips screw, but you stand a higher chance of damaging the screw head and it is more difficult to set it just right. Similarly but more subtly, you may be able to use a Phillips screwdriver to set a Frearson screw, but you will be able to do a better job if you have a Frearson driver. Most of us will probably not need this level of distinction and can get by with just a Phillips, or indeed perhaps with just a slot-head driver, but if you want to be able to craft the best results over the widest range of projects, having that Frearson screwdriver in your toolbox will provide one more area in which you can do things better.

Swear words are the sledgehammers of our verbal toolbox. Like a sledgehammer, a swear word can pack a lot of punch, and like a sledgehammer it lacks precision. Sometimes a sledgehammer is the right tool for the job: when you need to smash a hole in something, one good whack with a sledgehammer can be far more effective than trying to use pliers and screwdrivers to do the same thing.

But for most of us, most of the time, that's not the job we are trying to do. Most of the time we are more interested in making a neat hole, and we should pull out the electric drill, or the hole saw, or even the Sawzall to do the job; or we just need to tap in a small nail, where a standard hammer would work nicely. If we smash it with a sledgehammer, it's likely that we will then need to spend a lot of time cleaning things up afterwards, which would probably be more work than using one of the other tools in the first place.

Some people seem to have a very small toolbox and are constantly swinging around that sledgehammer. They use it for almost everything; rather than pulling out a screwdriver to set a screw, they whack it with their sledgehammer. To me, everything these people say seems like a pile of smashed rubble. I doubt that's really the message they want to deliver.

Even a single use of a sledgehammer word can derail any kind of nuance or subtlety, and casual use will likely overwhelm everything else in the message.

So go ahead and use a sledgehammer when it is appropriate, but do so deliberately and fully conscious of your intended result. Make an effort to add a good assortment of tools to your toolbox, understand what you are trying to accomplish, learn to use the best tool for the job and use it well.