What would you say if I told you there are nearly 12 million Republicans who react positively to the term, “liberal?”
OK, I can’t prove any of that, exactly. I’m committing the statistical sin of projecting some results of a recent Pew Research survey onto the 2008 presidential election results to make this point: Our assumptions about what various words mean don’t always reflect the real world.
Pew found that 20% of Republicans surveyed responded positively to the word, “liberal.” Just for fun, I went back to the 2008 returns and found that there were 59,948,000 Republican votes cast for president. If indeed 20% of those reacted positively to “liberal,” that would come to 11,989,600.
Would that affect how we choose and use our words? Keep in mind that it’s 2.4 million more than the 9,550,000 votes that swung the election.
Here’s another shocker from the other side: 47 percent of the liberal Democrats react positively to the word “libertarian,” even though today’s Libertarians pretty much advocate dismantling every big government program with which liberals are identified.
The Pew organization’s findings serve as a challenge to all of us to avoid assuming that our own attitudes, definitions and reactions match those of the people with whom we’re communicating. This is especially true in light of our increased tendency to seek out people and sources of information that support our views, and to avoid those that don’t.
Consider that among the three major TV news networks — Fox, MSNBC and CNN — only CNN even pretends to be non-partisan. Talk Radio, likewise, seems polarized. There doesn’t seem to be much demand for “down-the-middle” commentary.
Even Facebook promotes this. We “friend” people we like (these tend to be folks we agree with), and within that group, Facebook tends to highlight posts from people who, in the computer’s mind, seem to express views similar to our own. We think we’ve got an ear on the world, when it may be just an echo chamber.
(Digressive note: How did we let “friend” morph into a verb, anyway?)
We communicators work with words. Sometimes we write them, sometimes we speak them. We may even sing them.
We say a picture’s worth a thousand of them, and that can be true, especially for persuasion. The entire Civil Rights Movement turned on a few images of dogs and fire hoses. Images of self-immolating Buddhist monks and bodies at My Lai hastened the end to the to the war in Vietnam. And no image of our lifetime has carried more emotional punch than those of the World Trade Center coming down.
But for communicating critical and complex messages, we’re pretty much stuck with words. (Infographics are hot right now, but they’re just a combination of words and images.)
So it’s not a bad idea to pick the right ones, and that’s a lot harder than it looks. Everybody starts by looking up a word in a dictionary, as if that proves anything. Dictionaries never come close to keeping up with the day-to-day use of many of our terms. The lexicographers can give us an idea based on its use historically. But they are terrible guides to the emotional impact of various terms. They tell us what a word denotes, but rarely what it connotes.
The Pew survey focused on political words, but the message applies to nearly everything we say. I recommend reading the full report.