To a communicator, words are the tools we use to convey what is inside us to other people. Words are symbols that allow us to construct portable versions of our ideas, our feelings, our experiences, our belief, our knowledge, our wisdom and share those with the wider world.
“You write well because you think well,” a expressive writing teacher told me in college. Writing and thinking are absolutely connected; even if you are writing abstract poetry about emotion, you need to use your brain to achieve that process.
Like any craftsperson, our product is better, stronger, neater, more elegant and more graceful when we do our work with attention and precision. Our work shows the quality of our process and reveals our respect for technique, for tradition, for the materials and for the observer.
Sloppy work is a sign of disrespect. It reveals we don’t value what we offer enough to make it good. Our laziness, sloppiness, and mess is the sign of someone who chooses not to value craftsmanship.
For me, there is no way to create good writing without respecting language. I know I need to be precise in my use symbols, working hard to make sure the meaning of the words I use stays considered and consistent.
Not everyone writes or thinks with such explicit precision, though. They just grab whatever word is easy, just construct sentences, paragraphs and essays with no consideration of precision or integrity.
To them, they are just expressing what they think and feel, pouring out what is inside of them, so to hold them to any standard of language use is just intellectually oppressive, the coercion of those who want to silence them. They get to dump their own brain contents and it is the listener’s fault if they don’t understand.
While people certainly have the right to their own sloppy expression, the real challenge is their own sloppy reception.
Good communicators are always good receivers of communication. You cannot write well without reading well, cannot speak well without listening well, cannot create art without also engaging art.
The process of improving communication always, always, always depends on feedback, sending and receiving in a loop that closes difference by increasing precision.
Communication is always the art of collage. We can’t make up everything new inside of us, for if we did that, people would have little idea what we mean. Instead, we consume communications, process them, and store up chunks we find useful and compelling. We then assemble our own communications out of these chunks, putting symbols and structures together in a way that best communicates what we want to share.
One of the most precious things that anyone can share with me is their story. I have spent my thirty years exploring transgender eagerly listening to the stories of others, whoever they are. I listen to partners and FTMs and crossdressers and transsexuals and transpeople & allies of every label they chose for themselves.
I listen with respect. For me, that means working hard to understand what they mean by what they share, working to comprehend and embrace their own struggle, thinking and challenges. Their stories are about them and not about me, so I have to accept them where they are, not where I am.
Through that process, I see how we are like ice cream, both fundamentally the same, made out of the same stuff, and essentially different with our own special flavour mix, each both an essentially unique individual and also fundamentally just another human being. This is the foundation of my queer vision.
I struggled to find that ice cream metaphor, but once I did, I integrated the symbols of why being fundamentally the same and essentially different makes sense. I started to use that language consistently in my work, holding on to that hard won definition. ‘
When I see sloppy language use, I see sloppy thinking. I used to see people railing about the oppressiveness of gender so I would ask people to define “gender.” Did people mean gender identity, gender expression, or something else?
Usually, people would just flail around with that answer. They hadn’t taken the time to understand what gender is, just taken up the rallying cry that it was oppressing them and therefore had to go. Are there any benefits to gender, I would ask? What purpose does it serve? Why has it been around so long, in every human culture we know? Why do the majority or people gender themselves so willingly and happily? Maybe the problem was some facets of gender, but how could we know that unless we first understand what gender is? (FYI, it is compulsory, binary gender, especially as used in coercive marketing of products that I have a problem with.)
One of the biggest challenges in the transworld is that we do not yet have shared and collective language that is broad and embracing. So many transpeople have negative identities — they can tell you what they are not, but do not have language to tell you what they are — that finding common language to coalesce our political and social actions around is very hard.
Instead of working to come together by struggling to find language that serves all of us to reveal how we are connected and different, we end up working to shout down people who use language that pushes our buttons, that we find politically incorrect. This is the behaviour of crabs in a barrel, pulling each other down and not letting anyone get out unscathed.
I work very hard not to use my language not to point out where other people are wrong but instead to express what I think is right. I have heard and respected the stories of a wide range of transpeople and let those stories shape my understanding. I don’t need to shout them down, I need to speak from my own vision with deep thought grounded in precision and consistency.
Because I avidly consume language, especially language about trans narratives, I know that not everyone respects their own story, our shared challenges, and the power of language enough to care about striving for good, high quality, precise craftsmanship. Their language is easy, comfortable and sloppy and that is the way that it is going to stay.
I knew a crosdresser identified person who would speak of me in their language. It was hard for me to hear this, as it showed no respect for my story, for what I worked for and shared. I wrote a narrative about someone like them in my inclusive language and shared it with them. They loved it, loved how it really told their story in a powerful and graceful way. They did not, however, see how my language could reflect their life but their language couldn’t reflect mine. They just kept on using their language to describe what we shared and soon after, that relationship ended.
My choice of symbols and structures is not casual and random. I respect my own path and the work we have done to come together too much to not show that respect with precision and caring. My words carve the boundaries of my life and by setting those boundaries, respect both myself and those I communicate with.
There is no way to be more present in the world without becoming a better communicator, with a better understanding of what you value & want to share and better techniques to do that sharing.
There is no way to be a better communicator without respecting symbols more so you can use them in a more precise and more effective way. We respect story, both our story and the stories other people trust with us, when we respect the language they use to convey their own experience, understanding and meaning.
I love the tales of humanity and that means Iove the language we shape to tell them. I share my own tales with precision to both respect them and respect the precious time and effort my listeners put in to engage them, working to make it easy and fun to do the hard work of entering someone elses world and seeing through their eyes.
Striving for precision is the way I show respect, for myself, for my listeners and for the power & beauty of human language itself.