I was reading David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” — The chapter called “Authority and American Usage.“  I learned a new word: Dysphemism.

Apparently it’s a new word for my dictation software too, because when I said it to dictate this article, even if I enunciate very carefully, it came out “this feminism.”

A dysphemism (this time: “diss for mizzen”) is:

It occurs to me that much of the common discourse I read or hear these days, especially in politics,  is full of dysphemisms (dismiss him‘s). Each side has their own. Consider “neo-conservative” as a substitute for just “conservative,” or “leftist” instead of “liberal.“ And don’t even get me started on “woke.” I haven’t done exhaustive research, but I’m pretty sure that the use of dysphemisms (this for Mrs.) is rampant, with each side straining to diabolically weaponized the English language against the other.

It happens in defense as well. We call those, much more commonly, euphemisms.  Have you ever met anybody that is “pro abortion” rather than “pro choice?“ Or, similarly, “anti-choice” rather than “pro life?”

My sense that dysphemisms (this from isms) are probably stealthily prevalent in daily use made me wonder if there was actually a condition called dysphemia (a word that, judging by the red underline, my spell-checker doesn’t even recognize).

As it happens, there is such a word!

I guess I find it interesting and telling that a dysphemism (yes from -ism) is a linguistic technique that makes something intentionally ugly, and the word that seems like it should describe the act of using this technique describes a mental disorder that leads to a lack of control. Coincidence? I think not.

Understanding depends on Trust

I’m interested in the language that’s used in polarized conversations. It seems to be coming up more and more often. Bill Maher talks about this frequently.  He rightly accuses the left of using labels that end in -phobic, for instance, where those labels don’t apply. I think that any time someone hyperbolizes(1) an argument, it diminishes it — unless there’s a good deal of trust between people to begin with. It’s weird, because the left is usually more guilty of complicating and confusing language in the supposed interest of subtlety and precision, but then somehow this often ends up in some kind of final label, which does the exact opposite. Remember Bill Clinton? “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.” <face palm>

For instance, the left might argue that the theological and historical differences between Islam and Christianity are subtle and complex; that all religions are similar.  But in the end it’s the left that co-opts the term “Islamophobic” to mean anyone who disagrees with something that comes out of Islam. Questioning something does not mean you are “phobic” of it. I think every time the left does this, it allows the right a chance to co-opt an important concept like “woke.”  Woke was intended to mean being attentive to important issues. But going too far in that direction puts the whole idea out of balance, creating an opening for the right to co-opt the term to mean exactly the opposite.

The right, on the other hand, prefers simpler language — at least on the surface. Just hearken back to the bumbling language used by George W. Bush, or the overt schoolyard tactics of Donald Trump. Conservatives liked both of them because they thought they “told it like it was” in “plain language.”  In reality, they were often over-simplifying complex issues to the point of childishness. Questioning basic premises is not “gaslighting.” The right is proudly anti-woke.

Did you know that there’s a whole scramble in the interverse(2) to find a word for “anti-woke?” There is. However, people seem to be searching for the opposite of the “stolen” meaning of “woke,” not the original meaning. It’s like schoolchildren on the playground: “You’re ugly! Oh yeah? Well YOU’re uglier! Am not — you’re the UGLY-est!”… and so on. 

In the end, It seems to me that there are two fundamental alternatives that lead to better conversations (not to over-simplify, of course. See what I did there)?

The first approach is to slow down and pick at the language. To be logically consistent and coherent, we could be very precise in our language — defining and re-defining every term; justifying and clarifying and contextifying(3) every phrase.  We’ll all sound like lawyers. In general, this is not a world I want to live in. But lawyers serve a purpose in the world, and we would be wise to keep that in mind.

The other approach is to create more trust before we have important conversations to begin with. Allow each side to speak freely, and then allow each other to question each others’ meaning without nit-picking. This trust is missing in almost anything on the internet. I guess UnderstandingOnPurpose is intended to be a place where trust comes first. 

BTW… I tried to make up some words during this post just to be cheeky, and I failed. According to at least one of my spell-checkers, somebody already beat me to the following: (1) Hyperbolize, (2) Interverse, and (3) Contextify.

Beer bridged gaps

I think maybe this Information Age — social media in particular — has resulted in a world where we know too much about each other too soon. Worse yet, we know the wrong things before we know the important things. People post the most flattering images, which are designed to build their “brand,” and keep people coming back. The “look at me” culture that results from this has exacerbated whatever existing polarization we were already dealing with. There’s no time to get to “know” someone before we find out something about them that might separate us from them.

The following beer commercial (Heineken) is brilliant. People are pre-recorded in short interviews, responding to potentially controversial questions. Then they are paired with a “random” stranger with whom the clearly — bun unbeknownst to them — have some sort of conflict, based on those interviews. The pair is tasked to follow instructions to build something out of parts — a bar, as it turns out.

Then, after having spent that time working on a common purpose together, they are asked to watch a short clip of each of their own recorded interviews — revealing some underlying polarizer (that they have apparently not uncovered themselves yet). Then, they are offered a choice to enjoy a beer together, or not.

I find it fascinating. If they had know each others’ “secrets” in advance, the interaction would likely have been completely different. Why? They’re both the same people.

See for yourself:

Letting Go of the Hate

My wife, Linda, and I are addicted to “The Expanse,” which we’re watching on Apple TV. There are five seasons, and I think we just started season 3. At the end of season 2, the Reverend Doctor Ana Volovodov is counseling Amos, a seasoned warrior. We saw this come across our screen and Linda and I both lit up at how this passage was so exactly what UnderstandingOnPurpose is all about.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who picked up on the prophetic nature of this scene, as it’s featured on the fandom page for this character (played by Elizabeth Mitchell).

On every side of this there are people who have no reason to hate each other. Everyone here thinks they’re doing the right thing. Everyone there thinks they’re doing the right thing. If we get out of this we have to find a way to understand each other, to explain why we made the choices that we did. It is the only way that we can let go of the hate. Hate is a burden. You don’t have to carry it with you.”

– Dr. Ana Volovodov

Letting Go of the Hate

The Dance

I just read a great article, sent to me by my long-time friend, Wayne. Wayne is really smart. I really value what Wayne says. And yet Wayne and I disagree a lot. So much so that, over the years, I don’t even open most of his emails because the subject line seems so biased. 

I’ve been focusing my energy these days on trying to change the way we have conversations (see understandingonpurpose.com), so sometimes I take a deep breath, crack my neck, and remind myself that Wayne’s thoughts can be a rich source of training material (ahem). I mean, if I can’t change the conversation with a long-time friend, what chance do I have with relative strangers?

So. Wayne sent me this article, about the science behind “winning an argument.”

“Winning an argument,” in this context, could probably be defined as “bringing the other person to your point of view.” Long story there, but let’s leave it at that for now.

I’ve been training in a martial art called Aikido for at least 22 years. People outside Aikido circles sometimes interpret the movements of Aikido as “using your opponent’s energy against them.” This is actually quite far off the mark, but for now it’ll do, because it distinguishes this mind set from that of most arts that focus on kicks and punches, in which the (equally off the mark) objective is to “meet the opponent’s attack with greater speed and power, and deliver killing blows.” Want more? Check out another blog of mine, at mikeidomo.

The reason I train in Aikido is because if I took the way I see conflict (ideally) and put it into a dance, it would look like Aikido. Almost everything in the physical “dance” of Aikido is analogous to something in the verbal dance of a conversation — particularly debate, or argument.

So. A line in this article struck me (so to speak): 

I loved this, because I’ve often taught that our relationship to our attacker in Aikido is a “frame” — I usually use this language when working with dancers, because they immediately get it. But it goes even deeper. The scientific study referenced in the article drew a conclusion:

To those of us who study Aikido, this sounds a lot like “blending” with an attack (as opposed to blocking it). 

Thanks, Wayne.


Thought for the day…

If I value a conversation with someone — whether it’s a teenager, a plumber, a co-worker, a doctor, my wife… It behooves me to adjust my language (speaking and listening) to the person I’m speaking with. It can be very difficult and frustrating.

The same is true in reverse. If the person I’m speaking with values the conversation, they will likely try to bend their language to meet mine. But I can’t count on that because I can only control me. Nevertheless, if they are trying, it’s important to be understanding, and try to meet in the middle.

The more sensitive the topic, and the more entrenched each of us are in our positions, the more difficult this becomes. For instance, reflect for a moment on the simplest level — the simple meaning of certain terms and phrases, and the subtext that comes along with them in various contexts:

  • “Progressive” / “Liberal” / “Leftist”
  • “Old”
  • “Fair”
  • “Christian values”
  • “Gun control”
  • “Racial” / “Racist”
  • “Trust”


Most people are probably right about most things most of the time, because most people get through their day-to-day lives reasonably well.

However, “most things” and “most people” still leaves a lot for all of us to be wrong about — even on a regular basis. Moreover, I have a hunch that the kinds of things we’re wrong about lean towards one-offs rather than day-to-day things, and possibly tend to be the bigger, more directional things that set the tone for everything else. If we’re wrong about certain fundamental concepts, facts, or principles, our day-to-day behaviors that align with them may be “right” in context — but it’s the context itself that is “off.”

Of course, I could be wrong.

I was so sure!

We lost our cable connection today. We have a cable service, through which we get our TV service and our internet. It went out.

I did the usual stuff. I rebooted the router. I rebooted the cable box for the one TV in the house that is on a hard coax connection (the others are on WiFi connections). I verified that there were no service interruptions in the area. I checked all the connections… (more on that later)…

For about an hour, I was on the phone to the cable company, rerouted to 5 different people, until they finally told me that they couldn’t get a technician out until Tuesday (it’s Sunday). This is what they call “24/7/365” care. I was getting more and more upset. Clearly, the problem was on their end. Nothing changed on mine — or so I thought. I was so sure.

So here’s where I should have gotten a clue…

It turns out that, few hours ago, I had gone back into the furnace room to get a fan. The furnace room also happens to be where the cable comes into the house. It’s all up in one upper corner of the room, in the ceiling. It’s rat’s nest of cables, but I went nowhere near it when I got the fan.

However, I did have to move some things around to find the fan. In doing so, it seems I knocked a plug loose from the outlet in the wall — on the other side of the room from the rat’s nest. This plug (wait for it…) happens to be the power for the key splitter for all the cabling into the house. Bingo. Problem solved.

My wife found the problem. Why? because she wasn’t focused on the part of the room where the cables were. I knew the cabling couldn’t be the problem, because I hadn’t been anywhere near it. She had an open mind. I didn’t.

The fact that I had to move boxes around to get to the fan because my wife put a bunch of stuff in this room that shouldn’t have been there in the first place… well, that’s another story. 🙂

Communication is…

I’m a fan of Simon Sinek. Here’s a recent post on LinkedIn, from his perspective.

This is an interesting perspective, as obvious as it might seem. I focus a lot on understanding another person’s point of view, by using techniques like echoing back what we’ve heard. If we can do this — to the speaker’s satisfaction — then we can be more sure that we understand.

This post is the flip side of that. I say something, then I ask you to echo it back to me. If you can do that, then I can be sure you understand, and I have communicated well.

So… did you get all that? 🙂