Monday, September 28, 2009

Try Writing Chinese!

The next time you struggle to write something, think about our friends from Asia who are trying to write in this perplexing English language of ours.

Of all of my students, my Asian students, as a group, have the worst time with English writing. And, how would they not? For instance, according to “Language Construction and Grammar Differences between English and Chinese” by Larry Romanoff:

-The Chinese language has no articles.

-The word 'no' does not exist in Chinese.

-Chinese has no singular and plural. Since there are no singular and plural, subject-verb agreement doesn't exist.

-Chinese does not distinguish between countable and non-countable nouns; one money, one homework, one child.

-Chinese has no gender forms, other than words for 'he, she, it' - which have the same pronunciation. In Chinese 'I' and 'me' are the same, as are 'he' and 'him', 'she' and 'her'.

-Chinese verbs do not express time, but simply action, so Chinese has no verb tenses. Chinese verbs are one word and express a simple action. This is not a small thing. In English, the verbs carry so much of the meaning that we could often toss the rest of the sentence without loss. 'I would have had to have gone to Beijing had I wanted to do what you have suggested.' is a complete sentence in English constructed (almost) entirely with verbs; to the Chinese, it's jibberish.

-Our need for the verb 'to be' is a non-existent concept - 'I am going'; Chinese says, 'I go', or ‘I will happy’, or ‘We will always together’.

-Chinese does not have hundreds of words that function as different parts of speech with minor variations in spelling, like 'hesitate, hesitant, hesitation ...'. 'Don't be hesitated ...' makes perfect sense in Chinese.

-Chinese has no negative questions. Never say to a Chinese friend 'You aren't going to the party, are you?' If he’s not going, he will answer, “Yes”.

Imagine trying to understand and write a language where articles are as important (and as confusing to use) as they are in English if your language has no use for them. Imagine writing in a language that that has verb tenses, if your language doesn't use them!

All of this makes Chinese a much simpler language than ours and underscores the complexities of English. However, it doesn't make the adaptation any easier for the my Asian students. Therefore, every time I sit to grade a paper of one of my Chinese students (or Japanese, or Korean, or other Asian), I think of how I might fare if I were sitting in a classroom in Beijing trying to communicate in Mandarin (or sitting in Mumbai, or Seoul, or even Milan trying to communicate). For any critic of the Asians and their attempts to communicate, I say, "Try writing Chinese!"

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Watch what you say!

In my writing classes I engage my students in discussions about the inherent discrimination in the English language. You certainly know that we discriminate against people of color with our terms: "blackball", "blackguard", "blackmail and "blacklist" (among many others). This, of course, is opposed to a "white lie" and a "white knight" and so on. Perhaps at lunches today you ordered (the good and white) "Angels Food Cake" instead of (the bad and black) "Devil's Food Cake"! Hey, we're afraid of the dark so why not be afraid of dark skinned-people?

You may also know that we are prejudiced against left-handers: "sinister" meaning "left-handed" in Latin and "adroit" meaning "right" in French. (I always told mom that my left-handed sister Dianne was sinister!) We say someone is "in the right" but others are "out in left field."

Then we have "bachelor" and "spinster" (with its nasty connotation) and "master" and "mistress' serving to prejudice our feelings about gender. Only in 1979 did we stop naming hurricanes after women. And, then there's historical sexist language, as in: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," according to Neal Armstrong upon stepping on the moon.

When we "gyp" someone, of course, we are expressing a prejudice against Gypsies (and probably never even met one)! And it goes on and on, in the most subtle forms.

The bottom line is: we will never be free of prejudice until we stop using language that inherently contains prejudices of which we are unaware! I teach this to a few hundred students every year. But, the message needs to go to a larger audience, not as some PC fad but as a necessary change in the way we use words. Agree?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Avoid acronyms!

This week the president of Carnegie Mellon University sent a most incredible e-mail. The subject line read: "Message from the President Regarding New Board on Administration, Regulation and Finance (BARF)". Seriously!

In the text of the BARF message President Cohon said: "Please see the announcement below about a new committee that I have created to provide advice and guidance on the regulatory burden we are facing. I consider this to be a significant undertaking and of great importance to the future of Carnegie Mellon."

President Cohon then listed the names of at least 20 BARF people to serve on the BARF Committee, most of them senior staff members (BARFers) at CMU (the pure number of people creating a problem of its own).

Did the president not realize the meanings of his acronym, "BARF"? Did he choose the BARF name on purpose, thinking it would stick or that the members would feel like part of something special, a BARF group? How do the BARF members feel about being on the BARF Committee? And, what kind of BARF work will they do? Chugging contests? Did President Cohon choose the BARF acronym because he thought it fit a college (fraternity) culture? Or, was it simply a (very) dumb mistake?

Obviously the BARF acronym will create some commentary, such as this. It has already begun to spread virally around campus. But, the BARF name won't work; no one will automatically know that it means "Board on Administration, Regulation and Finance." Acronyms seldom work, despite their widespread use. Most people have no idea what FEMA means or the OMB, DOD, TARP, AFMLS, BLS, CCR, CDP, DOS, FHFA, and all the rest. (Go to this site if you want to see the hundreds of US government acronyms:

Acronyms only work when they are created by the people who use the product or service. Customers created FedEx, not Federal Express, who acquiesced to its use after the fact. The Los Angeles Police Department was named LAPD by the people of Los Angeles, probably after the people of New York named the NYPD. And, speaking of Los Angeles, we easily call it "LA" but no one calls New York "NY". And, you don't find New York City promoting itself as "NY" or "NYC".

What can you learn from all this talk about BARF? If you feel tempted to create an acronym for your product, service or committee, resist the urge. No one will know what you're talking about. You may just end up with BARF all over the message (and the group).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Show some gratitude!

Seems not everyone is thrilled with the new Gates and Hillman Centers on the Carnegie Mellon University campus, even some of the people who may work there. Randal Bryant, Dean of the School of Computer Science, was so concerned with what he termed “a litany of complaints or a lack of enthusiasm about the new facilities” that he wrote an e-mail to “scs-all” on August 24, 2009 (that means he sent an e-mail to all students, faculty and staff of computer science).

In his message Dean Bryant said, “I feel obligated, therefore, to give you a review of some basic etiquette. You know that it’s not in my nature to make statements like this. Things have to get pretty serious for me to send e-mail to scs-all on this subject.”

How serious are things? How bad is geek etiquette? Dean Bryant said, “I am getting a lot of reports from people who are dismayed (and I am asking) you to be kinder to the people who have been working like crazy to get things ready, and to the people to whom we owe these amazing buildings.”

Dean Bryant then listed his etiquette tips. They included:

•If the president of the university asks you “How do you like your new office?” don’t complain about the elevator or AC not working, or that the wrong furniture was put in your office. (Yes, some people really did that.) Don’t say something ambiguous like “It’s not too shabby.” Remember that our administration made a big stretch financing this project to the tune of $98 MILLION DOLLARS. It has involved considerable effort in fundraising, and the university took on a lot of debt that will take 30 years to pay off. We’ve also moved into what I think is the the most amazing academic building in the world. Instead of complaining to someone who really is in no position to fix an elevator, try saying 'Thank you. I really love this place.'

•When you feel inconvienced (sic) by the work that hasn’t been completed, or you can’t find something, don’t get into a tirade with Jim Skees, Guy Blelloch, or the construction people. They have literally been working around the clock to get things ready. Try saying 'Thanks for your hard work.'"

Dean Bryant said that he advised the above “because in the next several months we’ll have a lot of people passing through. People like Bill Gates, Henry Hillman, Rick Rashid, an (sic) many alumni and visitors. These people have also made a big contribution to the welfare of SCS. Expressions of gratitude on your part are important.”

The message raised a few eyebrows and a few hackles. One person from SCS told us, anonymously: “I believe in gratitude but not enforcing it. I’m not paranoid but memos like this make me so (or I’d let you quote me). I felt it was a form of censorship and as an institution of higher learning we can’t allow that. It was also condescending. Funny, many of us who received the message will not even move there."

Other students, faculty and staff we interviewed had these comments:

“I was offended.”
“It was like asking someone for a gift.”
“I was insulted. It was tactless and sarcastic.”
“I question the word choice. I felt it was appropriate but used the wrong tone.”

It is hard to read these words, “Try saying “’Thank you, I really love this place’” without the sense that you are being sarcastically scolded by your mom.

When asked about the message, Dean Bryant said: “My purpose was to stop people from being petty. We have had people working around the clock to get this building open. The workers had sent warning messages and had told us that moving could be awkward. I had no intention of abridging academic freedom. I am not a controlling person. There have to be quite a few people talking to me about the complaints for me to act. And, this is not a case of everyone in the building not liking it. But imagine walking up to Bill Gates and saying, ‘The wrong furniture was put in my office.’”

Dean Bryant said that he spent a lot of time writing the message and that it wasn’t aimed at students. He also said he has received many thank you’s (over 50) for writing the message and few complaints (2). But he admitted that it might have sounded sarcastic. In fact, he said, “If I could re-write it, I would.”

In any event, the message was widely distributed and has pointed to the weaknesses of e-mail. It carries facts well, but not emotions. It lacks context cues: facial expression, tone of voice, body language. And, more importantly, it quickly becomes a matter of public record, meant to exist for an eternity to make you very proud or very embarrassed.

So, hey, the next time you want to write an e-mail, show some restraint! Or, consider the other messages or media you could use to accomplish the same purpose.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Go to church. Build your vocabularly!

My family and I attend the Pittsburgh Latin Mass at St. Boniface Church on the city's North Side. We attend for its beauty, solemnity and ritual. As a bonus, we get to increase our vocabulary.

Our mass begins with the "Asperges" when the priest literally washes us by sprinkling holy water among the congregation. From the altar, the priest then intones, "Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto." It doesn't take much to understand the language as "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost." This simple understanding tells us that an English word like "patricide" has something to do with "father."

After another intonation and response, the priest says, "Domine sancte , Pater omnipotens, aeterne Deus...." We know he is saying, "Holy Lord, Almighty Father, everlasting God...." "Eternal" from the English and the Latin "aeterne" look nearly exact. And something "sanctified" is certainly something holy!

I'm not prostheltyzing here. You don't need to go to a Roman Catholic Church or a Latin Mass to build your vocabulary: pastors, priests, rabbis, gurus - they're all using language that informs English, whether it comes from Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Hindi, Arabic or another language. The English language has borrowed from all of them, and more! You only need to listen to hear it.

The Latin Mass, of course, is filled with such language, because English borrows so deeply from Latin. For instance, the priest confesses his sins and the altar boys say, "Misereatur tui omniopotens Deus, et dimissis peccatis tui, perducat te ad vitam aeternam." "Omnipotens" means almighty. "Misereatur" relates to mercy. And, "peccatis" has to do with sin, as in an English "peccadillo" (think Bill Clinton). After we all have confessed our sins, the priest says, "Indulgentiam, absolutionem, et remissionem, peccatorum, nostrorum tribuat nobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus" or "May almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to life everlasting."

We then glorify God by saying "Gloria in Excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis" or "Glory to God on high and on earth peace to men of good will." Think of the Latin "pax" and the English "pacify" and go from there! If you match the remaining words, you'll easily follow the meaning and see that you know Latin!

So, the next time you go to your church, temple, synagogue, or sanctuary, listen actively to the language. Hear the words. In the process you'll build your vocabulary - and you'll be filled with spirit and generosity, as a bonus!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"You lie!"

By now, everyone has read or heard about President Obama's speech to Congress last night, particularly the moment when Representative Joe Wilson's heckled the president with this unkind remark, "You lie!"

Joe was referring to the President's promise that the proposed healthcare plan will not insure illegal immigrants. We can assume that Joe has no love for anyone who crosses our borders to work without having been properly processed by INS.

Moreover, I'm guessing that Joe, congressman from South Carolina, must have read my blog on the power and effectiveness of two word sentences. No doubt, he expressed himself quite clearly in two words, one of them ugly.

Now, Joe, whom just about nobody knew (they were too busy following the sexual exploits of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford), has moved into the international spotlight. Just two words did it for him (that and a forum being watched intensely by media from all over the world)!

Joe has apologized, of course, telling the president that his emotions got the better of him; but, he has added his message to those ignominious few that will go down in history: Bill Clinton's "I did not have sex with that woman," Joseph McCarthy's "I have here in my hand...," and Henry Kissinger's "Mistakes were quite possibly made by the administrations in which I served (regarding Viet Nam)."

What can we learn from Joe Wilson? Among other things, choose your words carefully. One word, two words, it doesn't matter - words have power. You can harm someone (or yourself) irreparably with one word (remember when David Howard lost his job in DC for using the word "niggardly").

Use the appropriate medium. If you're a little crazy and want to get the world's attention, find a way to crash a joint session of Congress and shout (wear or throw) your message at the audience. If you want to criticize the president and be seen as a rational and normal individual, don't shout while the president is talking, and certainly don't call him a liar. Send him a memo. Give him a call. Hell, text him; he still insists on carrying his Blackberry.

Monday, September 7, 2009

What is this?

This weekend my wife, Holly, and I and our sons, Nicholas and Alexander, visited the home of our friends, Dennis and Margaret Moran. They own Dennis Moran Design and work from their beautiful home near Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania (in Washington County near Pittsburgh).

We actually got together to exchange Christmas presents from last Christmas! Better late than never! During our visit yesterday, Dennis gave my sons rides on his tractor (and let them drive his riding mower). This excited them greatly. And, when we went back inside their home, Dennis gave my sons a tour of his design studio (Dennis is one of the premier graphic designers in America and a very talented photographer).

During the tour of his studio, my sons were fascinated by Dennis's photos (the ones he had just taken of them on the mower) and an old sword and sheath that Dennis's uncle gave him. And, they were impressed by all of the antique cameras in Dennis's collection (antique meaning they were 10-20 year old film cameras). At one point, though, Alex called to Dennis from another room and asked, "What is this?"

When Dennis walked into the room, he saw that Alex was pointing to a typewriter, a very "Old School" communication device. It gave Dennis and me a good laugh! For my sons, a world without a computer and cell phones seems impossible. Communication without them also seems impossible. And, yet, long ago (in the 1980's) people communicated pretty well with each other using typewriters.

As the means of communication change, we need to understand the basics of communication, as well as the nuances of new media. Typewriters did their jobs well and so do computers. But, ALL CAPS MEANS SHOUTING to the audience whether it shows up in an e-mail message, a blog post, or a typewritten memo. You may not intend shouting, but your audience will read it that way. So, Old School or New School, you will never communicate very effectively if you don't understand and accommodate the needs of the audience.

Dennis and I learned from eight year old Alex something we have all learned: communication tools change. But, again, we need to remind ourselves that the principles of communication remain the same forever, especially this most important fundamental: you must live in the land of the audience, regardless of the device you use to communicate. This rule will last longer than a typewriter or a computer, just like our friendships with the Morans.

Friday, September 4, 2009

"Make It Look Like Wet Paint"

I asked my students to read a McKinsey Report article that featured an interview with Chip Heath, co-author of a great book, "Made to Stick." They also read a Harvard Business Review article about Heath entitled, "The Curse of Knowledge," where he talked about our assumptions that our audiences know what we know.

In the class discussion we talked about Chip's advice to use Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, and Emotional language in the form of Story to make messages stick and not to assume that audiences will know what we're saying simply because we said it. During the discussion, one of my graduate students, Laura Miller, told the class this story:

"I work at 21st Street Coffee and Tea. Our milk comes from the local Brunton Dairy. Ed Brunton delivers the milk every week in glass bottles and picks up our 'empties'.

We steam the milk for our coffee. Steaming milk at 21st Street Coffee and Tea is done differently than just about every other coffee shop in town. We do not re-steam milk. The milk we steam will be used for only one drink for one person; in other words, we do not steam large quantities and let the milk sit. We steam milk to be between 140 and 150 degrees; this way the milk tastes sweet and good for every drink, rather than waxy or burned if the milk reaches a higher temperature.

Lucas and Alexis Shaffer own 21st Street Coffee and Tea and work as baristas side by side their employees. I worked at 21st Street Coffee and Tea for four weeks before they began to train me to steam milk. They waited four weeks to train me so that before I steamed milk I would already have an idea of the rhythm of the coffee shop. I knew what a good drink tasted like, what steaming milk right sounded like, and I knew what a good drink looked like when finished.

Steaming milk the right way is difficult to learn. The balance of air, milk, and heat must be just so in order to create a uniform micro-foam which is the signature of a perfect latte. Rather than have me worry about all of the small details I needed to know in order to steam milk (precise temperature, micro-foam size, texture, etc), Luke said, 'Don't worry about all of the details. Just make it look like wet paint. Pretend like you are going to paint with it.' When talking about milk temperature he said, 'Put your hand on the side of the container. When the container is hot enough to be uncomfortable but not burn you, it is done. That is a latte temperature.'

So when I make lattes at 21st Street Coffee and Tea, rather than thinking I am making a latte, I first picture myself making wet paint. It works every time."

And, that, my friends, is language working at its best! It uses a simple, concrete, unexpected image to communicate to an uninformed person a concept that the expert clearly knows. The result? A great tasting latte - with the texture of wet paint!