Language barrier

Today is Easter, and I went to church. It’s what I do. While I was listening to different people speak to the congregation, I heard a foreign language: church language. Listening for communication gaps–that’s also what I do.

Church language bothers me. It’s not the message behind it that makes me squirm; it is the exclusivity of the language. If you’re an outsider, you have no idea how to handle some of those high falutin’, faith-specific, laced-with-particular-meaning words. In fact, it can be extremely off-putting.

If you’re trying to reinforce membership in an exclusive club, you just might be getting the job done. If you want others to feel welcome, though, you’ll be much more effective if you embrace a common language. Speak words everyone knows and can understand without explanation and see how much easier it is to get people to listen.

If you’re put off by the Christian analogy, think of it this way. If you’re a doctor speaking to a medical conference about the dangers of smoking, you’ll probably use medical terms. You’ll speak in the context of physiology and cellular transformation. You’ll cite studies and medical evidence, and you’ll sound really smart. All the other doctors will nod and understand. However, if you take that same speech and give it at a community outreach presentation, people’s eyes will probably glaze over. Other medical professionals in the audience might get it, but no one else will. I doubt you’ll get many people to leave their Marlboros in the trash can by the door by using language that distances them from the topic.

So whether your message is about Easter or stopping smoking or wearing seatbelts or a critical project at work, remember this. How will you get people on board if no one understands you? If it’s that important, don’t make people translate. Most of the time, they won’t.

3 thoughts on “Language barrier

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  1. Just to play Devil’s advocate, NPR recently did a segment on the King James version of the Bible – how its poetic imagery and metaphor have infused and shaped our modern dialogue. There are times when the grandiosity and beauty of language that transcends everyday vocabulary can add great force and impact to a message.

  2. I agree, Mohz, but I don’t think our perspectives are mutually exclusive. The point I was trying to make is that when someone wants to be inclusive–to bring outsiders into the flock, as it were–it is important to speak a language that the intended audience will understand. An inclusive message can become exclusionary if people aren’t speaking the same language.

    With respect to the KJV in particular, I think we could have a whole separate discussion about that, but probably not here.

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