Awkwardness as the Price of Admission to Being Human

Nearly all relationship advice of any sort, for any kind of relationship, can be dismissed with just one sentence: “But that would be awkward!”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those words. Suffice it to say that if I had a dime for every time, I’d be quite a lot wealthier than I am right now.

“Talk about STI testing before we have sex? But that would be awkward!” “Meet my partner’s other partner? But that would be awkward!” “Talk to my partner about how I’m feeling? But that would be awkward!” “Experiment and try new things in bed? But that would be awkward!” “Talk openly about sexual boundaries? But that would be awkward!” “Talk about my sexual fantasies? But that would be awkward!” “Ask before kissing someone? But that would be awkward!” (That last one, in fact, deserves a blog post of its own.)

These aren’t hypothetical examples. I’ve heard or read every single one of these…just in the past eight weeks.

awkward

Awkward!

Here’s the thing: It’s true. Every bit of it. Doing these things will, at some point or another, likely make you feel awkward.

Do them anyway.

For a lot of folks, it seems that feeling awkward or uncomfortable is the greatest hardship imaginable. Worse, it’s almost as if we have, floating around in our subconscious minds, some idea that we have a right to be comfortable all the time, and to never have to confront awkwardness or discomfort.

In the book More Than Two, one of the ideas we tried to communicate is that other people are real. In fact, it’s one of the ethical axioms we talk about: don’t treat people as things.

Part of treating people as people and not as things is understanding and accepting that you will, from time to time, feel awkward.

“Don’t treat people as things” sounds easy, but it’s deceptively complicated. Every human being you have ever met or will ever meet—indeed, every human being who has ever existed—is unique. We all want different things, we all have different priorities. Regardless of how compatible the people close to you may be, the only thing you can be absolutely sure of is there are places, perhaps big, perhaps small, where your needs and desires differ.

That’s why it’s absolutely essential to talk to people, and to hear and consider their needs. It’s not all about you.

It’s awkward when you want something and the person across from you wants something else. It brings your goals into conflict with theirs. Just the possibility of that happening feels uncomfortable.

I think that’s where a lot of the objections of “But that would be awkward!” come from. Talk about STI testing before sex? That would be awkward, because what if they have different ideas about it than I do? What if that means I won’t get what I want?

When you are willing to have those awkward conversations or do those uncomfortable things, you’re showing that you recognize other people are different from you and you’re willing to treat them accordingly.

When someone cries, “But that would be awkward!” the subtext is, “And not feeling awkward is more important to me than recognizing the differences between us that make us both people.”

Therefore, I would like to propose we all would do well by confronting our fear of discomfort, and being willing to do that awkward thing we don’t really want to do. Especially when that awkward thing is awkward because it forces us to confront the differences between us, even when it might sometimes mean we don’t get what we want.

Being willing to feel awkward from time to time is the cost of entry to being a decent human being.

Some thoughts on finding love

As we bid goodbye to 2015 (and good riddance, too; it was a tumultuous year) and stand at the doorway to 2016, I find myself thinking about what makes good relationships.

Someone recently asked the question, “What is the difference between a person who finds love easily and a person who finds it difficult to make loving connections?”  

This is a question I think I can offer some insight on (at least for people who share most of my privileges), because in my own life I have gone from a person who found love impossible to a person who finds opportunities for love and connection all around me. During that transition, I learned that many of the things I assumed about folks who find love easily—that they’re rich, that they’re handsome, that they’re famous—aren’t true.

Nor, I learned, is finding love a matter of lowering one’s standards. My standards and requirements are stratospheric, some would say nigh-impossible. I am interested only in people who are polyamorous, and who are kinky, and who embrace a style of relationship that respects personal autonomy, and who are rationalists and skeptics, and who have a track record of successful poly relationships, and and and…yet I still find that opportunities for love are abundant. I’ve met people who have standards so low they’ll take anyone with a pulse who will even look at them, yet their desperation drives people away.

I grew up in a tiny farm town (242 people) in Nebraska, and I was so different from all the people around me, I didn’t have any friends at all. My parents moved to Florida my first year of high school, and I entered a school with more than 2,000 students. I had no social skills whatsoever, I was shy, and I didn’t know how to make friends—so I certainly didn’t think I’d find love. That meant I was a late bloomer: I never even kissed a girl ’til I was 19.

Today? Today, even though I have very unusual tastes and requirements, I live in a world where opportunities for love are so abundant I have to say “no” a lot.

I have observed lots of other people who find love easily, and lots of people who don’t. I’ve seen people move from one to the other, and I’ve noticed clear, consistent differences between them. In my observation, the things people who find love easily have that the people who don’t, don’t, include, in no particular order:

Courage. Not heroic courage, but everyday, ordinary courage. It does not take magic skills, special powers, looks, or secret knowledge to become close to people. But it does take courage. You have to be willing to talk to people even if you’re shy, uncomfortable, or scared of rejection. And there is a trick to it. It’s not a trick for eliminating the fear of rejection, though. The people you see walking up to other folks and talking so effortlessly? It’s not effortless. They are just as scared as you are. They don’t have a magic secret to not being scared, they just don’t let being scared stop them. That’s what courage is: Doing the scary thing in spite of your fear.

Worthiness. Whenever someone talks about relationships, inevitably people will talk about how important “confidence” is. Okay, so what is confidence? Stripped to its essential core, it’s the belief that you have value. Really, this is a sense of worthiness. It’s tied to the belief that if someone rejects you, it doesn’t mean you are a pathetic loser nobody who totally sucks and doesn’t deserve to be with anyone; it just means that person has different tastes than you. There’s a trick to worthiness, too. You can’t wait for something to happen to “prove” that you have worth (like “if I just make more money I’ll be confident,” or “if I just lose weight I’ll be confident”). You have to take a leap of faith. You have to start believing you have worth and value right now, even if you don’t see it, and act like it’s there even if you think it’s not.

Kindness. I do not mean “niceness”: the fluffy, vaguely defined trait people think they have if they never express contradicting opinions or always let other people walk on them. I mean kindness: treating others well even if you don’t especially like them or don’t want anything from them. If you’re nice to that hottie you want to date, but not nice to the server at the restaurant, you’re not kind. If you are kind because you expect something from it rather than because it’s the right thing to do, you’re doing kindness all wrong. Kindness comes from genuine understanding of the essential humanity of others. Oh, and one more thing: Kindness begins at home. Kindness means being kind to yourself, too.

Directness. Look around online and you’ll find a gajillion questions like, “She flipped her hair and looked into my eyes; what does it mean?” and, “He chews on his pencil and starts humming the ‘Imperial March’ from Star Wars whenever I pass him; what does it mean?” And when folks aren’t asking questions like that, they’re asking things like, “I love this person madly—I would do anything for them; how can I subtly let them know?” And that misses the whole point of human connection. Be direct. If you want to know if someone fancies you, ask. If you want to know what someone means by something, ask. (Ask that person, not the Internet.) if you like someone, say so. This goes back to point 1: Direct communication takes courage. But you have to do it. Suppose you have a crush, and you’re looking for indirect signs that your interest might be reciprocated. While you’re spending months reading  tea leaves and agonizing over what it all means, the person who’s direct will walk up to your crush and say, “Hey, I like you, want to go out?” And wham, just like that, your opportunity is gone. And then you sit on the sidelines wondering, “How come other people find love easily and I don’t?”

Integrity. This is made up of a lot of things: honesty (saying what you mean, not misleading or manipulating people), trustworthiness (meaning what you say, even if you feel hurt or the other person does something you don’t like), not taking advantage of others (this goes back to kindness), and consistency (other people see that you’re reliable and can be trusted at your word). And it matters. People without integrity can charm and manipulate people, but that’s not the same thing as genuine connection. People who tell little white lies might think they are saving other people’s feelings now, but they do it at the cost of their own integrity (I’ve blogged about this before), and that means other folks trust them less. Are you trying to screw someone over in a leveraged buyout, or are you trying to find love? If it’s the latter, integrity carries you a long way.

Transparency. This means being open with who you are and open about what you want. It relates back to integrity and directness, but it also means not trying to hide things for fear of “scaring off” a potential partner. If someone would be scared off by something about you, that’s a good thing, because it means that person isn’t compatible with you. If you want something but you’re not open about what you want, well, you can’t expect to have it, can you?

Resiliency. You’re going to get hurt. Sure as night follows day, it’s going to happen. At some point your heart will be broken. How you deal with that when it happens…that’s where your true character shows. I once had a lover who told me she will never date anyone who has never had their heart broken. What happens when you’re hurt? Do you lash out? Do you blame others? Do you retreat into a cave and build walls around yourself to “protect” you? These things will only cause you more pain. Or do you accept that pain is a part of life, believe that you can get through it, and come out the other side saying, “Man, that sucked, but hey, look, I survived it! It didn’t kill me! I can be hurt and still know I will be okay, so I don’t have to be afraid of it any more!”?

Respect. I’ve said this countless times before but it bears repeating: Treat people as people. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard folks say things like, “I don’t know how to act around women,” or “I don’t know what men want.” Women are people. Men are people. Non-binary people are people. If you know how to talk to people, you’ve got this covered. Men and women are not different species. Men and women are individuals: If you’re trying to figure out what “men want” or what “women want,” then you’re thinking of people as objects and not as people. Treating people as people, talking to them like they’re people, and understanding that they’re individuals will take you 60% of the way toward finding love in abundance. It’s sad that the bar is set that low, and yet so many folks still can’t seem to manage it, but that’s the world we live in.

Vulnerability. This is going to get all head-bendy, so buckle up, Dorothy, because Kansas is about to go bye-bye. The best way to protect your heart is to be vulnerable easily, trust often, and not build high walls or fortresses around yourself. There’s a thing I’ve seen happen where people say, “I’ve been mistreated, so I am not going to trust easily. I’ve learned my lesson. I will not let people close to me.” And what happens? They get hurt and mistreated again. And again. Why? Because when you build a fortress around your heart and hold everyone at arm’s length, kind, respectful people say, “Oh, you’re not letting people close. Okay. I will respect your boundaries,” and then don’t get close to you. Who does get close? People who don’t respect boundaries. People who bulldoze through your walls. Who is most likely to mistreat you? People who don’t respect boundaries. So what happens? You get mistreated. And you build even bigger walls, until finally you’ve put up so many walls only a full-blown psychopath can get in. What’s the solution? Vulnerability. Invite people in easily, expect kindness, and assume good intent. That doesn’t mean being codependent or having no boundaries, of course. There are evil people in the world, and it’s important to pay attention to others and to learn how to identify the ones who might mistreat you. Have healthy boundaries, absolutely. Don’t allow yourself to be treated badly.. But don’t start out assuming everyone will treat you poorly.

Authenticity. Every piece of dating advice ever written says “be yourself.” It’s like a mantra. You know why? Because it’s important. Be yourself. Be who you are. Don’t think, “Well, girls only like this and such,” or “Guys want blah blah blah,” and then try to conform to that. If it works, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot, because guess what? You’ve just attracted a partner who is looking for something you’re not. Good luck making that relationship work! We live in a world with seven billion people. I don’t care how weird you are, how exotic your fetish is, or how strange your quirks are. There are people out there who share your weirdness, your fetishes, your quirks. You only need to find them. You find them by being openly, unabashedly, proudly who you are, and looking for the folks who connect with your style of being human.

Respect for autonomy. Other people are real. Other people are people, just like you are, and their needs and desires are just as valid as yours. They do not exist for the purpose of giving you what you need. You do not get your needs met or deal with your personal fears or insecurities by controlling other people—indeed, if that’s your go-to way of dealing with fear or discomfort, you are well on the way to becoming abusive, if you aren’t already. It is okay to express your fears. It’s okay to say, “Honey, I get uncomfortable when you have male friends because it makes me worried that you might replace me. Can you talk to me and tell me what you like and value about me so I can work through this insecurity?” It is not okay to say, “Honey, I get uncomfortable when you have male friends, so I don’t want you to talk to other men.” It is really, really, really not okay to say, “Honey, give me your phone so I can check and make sure you’re not talking to other men.” If you’re doing that, that is a warning sign of abuse. Talk to a therapist. Get help.

Abundance thinking. You ever notice how some people think love is easy to find, and some people think love is hard to find? It seems logical that people who think love is easy to find believe that because for them it is easy, and people who think it’s hard to find believe that because for them it is hard. And it’s true that the privileges and the social and sexual capital you have will shape your opportunities for romance. But when it comes to finding partners, how you think does shape the world you live in. When people think, “I can afford to be picky because there are lots of people who value me and lots of opportunity for connection,” more people value them, and they have more opportunities for connection. When people think, “I have to take whatever I can get, because I will never find anyone,” they find it harder to find anyone. Why? Because what you believe influences how you behave. When you have a starvation mindset that says love is hard to find, you act in ways that make you look desperate, a feature that’s attractive only to predators. When you believe that opportunities for love are all around, it’s easier to be confident, it’s easier to be transparent, it’s easier to be open, you are less likely to be desperate, and you’re more likely to be authentic, because you start from the assumption you will find love. See how it all fits together?

Some thoughts on little white lies

Cross-posted from my blog

It’s probably no surprise to anyone who’s read my writings for any length of time that I’m not a fan of dishonesty in relationships–of any sort, big or small. I have always championed the cause of open, honest communication, especially in romantic relationships. A great deal of human misery and suffering in relationships can, it seems to me, be addressed by the simple but nevertheless radical idea that communication is good.

That doesn’t mean I embrace the idea of Radical Honesty™, at least not as it often shakes out in the real world. I’ve written about that before.

But I am no fan of intentional dishonesty, even in small ways. The little white lie? It has effects that are farther reaching and more insidious than I think most folks realize.

People who advocate for the little white lie often argue–indeed, seem to believe–that they are being compassionate. The function of the little white lie is to save someone from hurt or embarrassment, the reasoning goes. What is the harm in that? Isn’t it cruel to tell a hurtful truth, if there is no purpose to it?

I have oft observed a very strange thing in romantic relationships, and that is good things our partners say to us tend to bounce off as though our self-conception were made of Teflon, whereas bad things have amazing power to stick. If our partner tells us “I think you’re beautiful; I am totally attracted to you,” it is easy to say “well, he doesn’t really mean it,” and not to internalize it. But a partner saying “I don’t think you look good in that dress” sticks tenaciously, and can haunt us for weeks.

Why is that?

There might be a lot of reasons, but I think one of them is the little white lie.

We live in a society where there are certain things we are “supposed” to say. There are certain lies that we are encouraged to tell–little soothing words that we set up like fences around anything that might potentially be hurtful to hear.

Each of them might, in and of itself, not be that big a deal. Who cares, really, if your partner’s butt looks big in that skirt? You’re not with your partner because of the size of their butt, after all; it doesn’t matter to your relationship.

But here’s the thing.

When you tell little white lies, however harmless they may seem, you are telling your partner, Don’t believe me. Don’t believe me. I will lie to you. I will tell you what you want to hear. Don’t believe me.

Is it any wonder, then, that positive stuff bounces off but negative stuff sticks? You are establishing a precedent that communicates to your partner, straight up, do not trust positive things I say. They are empty words. They do not reflect the reality of what I believe. So how, given that, can we really expect our partners to trust it when we give them affirmation?

Little white lies are corrosive. They communicate a very important truth: I will be dishonest to you to save your feelings.

When we make a habit of telling the truth all the time, something wonderful happens. We tell our partners, You can believe me. I will not say what you want to hear; I will say what I actually believe. That means when I tell you positive things, I mean them.

Lies, however innocuous, breed insecurity. They cause your partner to second-guess everything you say: does he really think this is true, or is he just trying to placate me? Is he genuine, or is he just trying to avoid saying something I might not want to hear?

A question I hear often is “When I tell my partner things I like about them, why don’t they believe me?” And the answer, of course, is that we live in a society that cherishes comfort above truth. We are taught from the time we are children that we should tell white lies, and expect others to lie to us, rather than say anything uncomfortable. That leaves us in a tricky position, because we don’t have any way of telling whether the positive words we hear are lies.

Oh, we know we can believe the negative words, because those aren’t little white lies–the purpose of a white lie is to avoid discomfort, and negative things are uncomfortable. We trust the bad stuff implicitly. But the good stuff? We have no reason to trust that! We don’t know if it’s real or if it’s a white lie.

So here’s a thought. If you want your lover to believe you about the good stuff, give them a reason to. Let them know it’s honest. How? By embracing honesty as a core value. What’s the harm in little white lies? They create an environment where we suspect dishonesty from everyone. We can never quite be comfortable that anything positive we hear is the truth; there is always–there must always be–that niggling little doubt.

It is very difficult to develop positive self-esteem when we can not trust the good things people say about us. And yet, taking away our trust to believe the good is exactly what little white lies do.

Don’t do that. Be compassionate in your truth–but be truthful.

#WLAMF no. 31: There is always missing information

“Did you feed the cat?”

It’s a simple question, right? My husband and I both feed the cat, though to be honest, usually these days it’s him.

So why is it that I feel guilty and defensive when I hear it? (Oh no, was I supposed to feed the cat? She wasn’t acting hungry, I thought he fed her already!)

“Did you scoop the cat box?”

Well, actually, usually my husband does that to. But when I get a text message from him, “Did you scoop the cat box?” I immediately feel defensive. Instead of a simple “No, do you want me to?” I’ve found myself typing, “No, you didn’t tell me it was needed! I thought you did it yesterday.” And he replies: “It’s okay! I just wanted to know if it still needs to be done!”

Or how about this: we had some guests recently. When they left, they made the bed nicely. We were having another guest, and weren’t sure if we needed to change the sheets. So we sent a message: “We were just wondering if the sheets on the bed were clean.”

“Oh no, sorry! That slipped by us! So sorry.”

Well, okay, they’re Canadian. Even so. We didn’t mean to tell them they were supposed to clean the sheets! We just wanted to know!

So what’s going on here?

Well, one answer is passive communication. But this is a totally normal way for us to communicate in North American society. The question “Did you…?” very often includes the assumption that the person being asked was supposed to do the thing in question; there’s often even a veiled recrimination in the question. If your response is no, it’s a confession, not an answer.

I’ve been pondering this over the last few weeks, perhaps because I’ve been asking “Did you…?” questions a lot. And I’ve realized something.

No matter what we say or how we say it, there will always be information missing from what we say. And our brains are exceptionally good at filling in missing information. Franklin talks about this in his Making Relationships Suck workshop: in experiments with people who’ve had the left and right hemispheres of the brain separated so they can’t communicate, a person’s left brain will completely fabricate reasons for actions taken by the right brain, and then believe them.

If I ask a question like “Did you scoop the cat box?” the missing information could be that I’m at home, contemplating whether to scoop the cat box. It could be that the cat has just pooped on the floor, and I’m trying to figure out why. Or it could be that I expected you to do it, and will be upset if you didn’t.

There is always missing information.

In my case, I guess I feel pretty guilty about never scooping the cat box, so it’s pretty easy for me to get defensive when asked if I did it. Funny how that works, isn’t it? My brain fills in the missing information—He asked if I scooped the cat box. OMG I never scoop the cat box. I AM A TERRIBLE KITTY MOM—and then inserts that information into his message, reflecting back at me.

We are going to do this. We can’t stop it; it’s how our brains work. And I think a big part of the difference between direct and passive communication doesn’t just come down to how completely or directly you convey information, but how you handle it when your brain fills in the missing bits. Do you recognize it when that happens? Do you check yourself and say, “Hey, why am I feeling defensive? Actually, they just asked for information.”

Our brains are buggy. They lie to us. Our feelings lie to us. Even our gut responses to straightforward statements or questions can lie to us. A big part of good communication consists of learning to identify the information gaps in what we hear, understanding how we’re filling them in ourselves, recognizing that we’re going to get it wrong, and asking the speaker to fill in the additional information.

Another good strategy is just to take the words at face value.

“Did you clean the cat box?”
“No.”
“Could you?”
“Okay.”

It’s not always this easy, of course. Sometimes you really do need that bit of missing information. But it’s often a good way to start. And trust me, not filling in that missing information at all is a big step up from filling it in with your own story. If you’re not sure what to ask, taking their words at face value leaves space for the other person to help fill it in—if it matters.


I’m helping Franklin and Louisa write one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign at midnight tonight, December 15, 2014. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015!

Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.

Language, communication, and verbal prescription

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Two nights ago, Eve and I were hosting a book signing event in Bellingham, Washington. We usually do Q&As at these events, and invariably get some really interesting questions. At Bellingham, one of our readers asked us our impressions of the language and jargon that’s grown up around polyamory.

I have always had an avid interest in language. In fact, I majored in linguistics for a while during my misspent college days, before I switched to neurobiology. (Given the path my life ended up taking, I probably should’ve stuck with linguistics.) For about the last ten years, I’ve been watching with fascination how the poly community uses language. I’ve been documenting what I’ve seen on the More Than Two glossary page, which has become the largest glossary of non-monogamy on the Web.

Unfortunately, that means every so often someone will point to a word someone else is using and say something like “That’s not what that word means! That word means this thing over here! I know because that’s what it says on the More Than Two website!”

In some ways, that might be because this site has been around long enough, and spoken in ways that resonates with enough people, that some folks see it as a kind of authority.

But the practice of polyamory is still new enough, and the formal study of polyamory still uncommon enough, that there really aren’t any authorities. A great deal of what you’ll find here can reasonably be called what we refer to in the book as anecdote-based polyamory. We’re all experimenters, learning through trial and error what works and what doesn’t. As we explore this way of relating, the language we use reflects the different approaches we all take to this grand experiment.

So I must, if I am to remain in good conscience, regretfully decline the position of The Guy Who Tells Everyone How It Is. While I feel I put a great deal of thought into the way I use language, I am neither able nor (if I am honest) particularly willing to tell everyone else what to do. Especially with regard to semantics.

As you read articles on this blog and this site, and especially our book, you will notice that we (I, my partner Eve, and other people we share this space with) are careful to be descriptive rather than prescriptive in our use of language.

For example, when we talk about hierarchy, we’re aware that the word is loaded. To some people, it means a prescriptive structure: a primary set of folks, usually a couple, determine in advance that everyone else must be secondary partners. To other people, it can be used descriptively: some people choose to be primary, or tightly entwined, or live-together partners; other people choose to be more casual, more “secondary-style” partners; but nobody has assumed the power to tell others “you must be secondary because I said so, and that’s the way it will be.”

What, then, do we do when we use these loaded words?

Describe what we mean by them.

For instance, in the book, we say:

Some people use the word hierarchy whenever one relationship has more commitments or responsibilities than another—for instance, members of a long-married couple with a house and kids becoming involved with a friend-with-benefits. This is not how we are using the word hierarchy in this book. When we talk here about a hierarchy, we mean a very specific power dynamic: where one relationship is subject to the control of someone outside that relationship.

This is not, as you can probably glean from this passage, our attempt to tell you how to use the word hierarchy. Instead, it’s our way of letting you know how we are using the word, to help avoid confusion; if you’re not using the word the same way as we do, then the bit that follows isn’t about you.

Communication relies on shared language. Without that, it fails. There are two important parts to communication: the speaking bit and the listening bit. It is important for us to be clear about how we’re using the words we’re using, and what we mean by them…but it is just as important for us to listen. When someone says “I am using this word in this way,” we must be able to hear what they say.

For example, let’s look at the particularly contentious word veto. A lot of people use this word in a lot of different ways. Some people use the word to mean something like “a unilateral, non-negotiable way to end another person’s relationship.” Other people speak of “veto” when they mean “a way to start a conversation about whether or not a relationship will continue.”

So it’s important if someone says “we have veto” to explain what that means; for example, “We have veto, which means if I object to my partner’s other relationship, I can talk to him about it.” But it’s just as important to listen to how others use the word. If you have a principle, as I do, that you won’t get involved with folks who have the unilateral-non-negotiable variety of veto, it’s not really useful to hold that definition of veto when someone else says “I have a veto, but it’s the beginning-negotiation variety.” If you refuse to listen, and say, “Well, you’re telling me you have a unilateral, non-negotiable say in your other partners’ relationships!” then communication has failed…but it hasn’t failed because of her!

Words have great power, and there’s power in being the one who gets to define them. Yet not even the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary are invested with the authority to tell other people how to use language. Dictionaries, properly used, describe language, and when the language changes, so does the dictionary. I may object to the new definition of the word literal that means “figurative,” but the tide of usage is against me, and nobody stands against the tide. (Ambrose Bierce defined the word “dictionary” as “a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.” He would, I suspect, be happy to see dictionaries that bend to the use of language, rather than the other way around.)

If you find the words written on this site or in the book useful–or, more importantly, if you find the ideas here useful–awesome! But if there’s one thing you can do to start improving communication to good effect and with immediate payoff, it’s this: when you use a word that’s ambiguous in meaning, or has many meanings, explain how you’re using it. Don’t tell others how they should use it; that way lies madness. And listen when someone tells you how they are using it; hear what they are trying to say to you, without overlaying your own meaning–a hallmark of passive communication.

If we all make an effort to explain what we mean by the words we use, and listen when another tells us, we can all communicate just a little bit better.

 

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