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Evasion-to-English Translation and the Quest for Right Speech

I hate to bother you, but I have a book recommendation. You'd never think such a brisk, poppy work would have so much to say about the passive-aggressive communication we buy into, but you might be surprised! Besides, it's only about 100 pages! Of course, you don't, like, have to read it, unless you want to. Whatever.

Cut. Take it from the top in three, two, one...

I have to bother with you because I think it's important that you read The Evasion-English Dictionary, a charmingly gruff and skeptical humor book by Maggie Balistreri. I didn't expect an apparent novelty gift such as this would contain such useful insights into “real speech,” as opposed to the passive-aggressive wishy-washy language we both regularly employ, but I was surprised and delighted. Mainly, I suggest it because it's a quick read with a killer ROI.

That's a wrap! Not bad. We'll fix “ROI” in post.

How we fit words together like Lego bricks affects the way we think, the way we do business, and the way we relate to each other. Poisonous corporate and self-help jargon may be rich fodder for comedy, but if we want to live fuller lives and behave in better faith to ourselves and each other, our patterns of speech warrant rigorous scrutiny.

In January, around the time Ken McLeod published his masterful post on practicing Right Speech, I was preparing myself for a talk on the silliness of tech startup jargon. I found key inspiration in
The Evasion-English Dictionary, an unimposing and little-known book with an alarming depth of thought on how we communicate, or how we fail to communicate and use fake-genteel language to elicit pity, shark for favors, and dodge the truth.

The book riffs on such platinum smashes of wuss-speak as:

  • Feel = Am” - “It was all my fault. I feel responsible.”
  • “But = Because” - “I'm not doing very well at work but I don't care.”
  • “Sensitive = Insensitive” - “I looked into that job too. It's so stressful, though; every day, you talk to people whose lives are so much worse than your own. I would feel so guilty and stressed out. I don't want to deal with that. You have to understand; I'm really sensitive.”

It also features multiple variations on the perennial classics “like,” “whatever,” and "the relationship."

At the heart of Balistreri's work, there's a deeper philosophical inquiry. “Change your words, I believe, and you change your deeds,” she writes. “It is, for example, harder to look someone in the eye and say 'I am unproductive' than it is to say 'I feel unproductive.' We do what is easy, and if I cringe at the admission that I am unproductive, perhaps that will spur me to industry. If I commit to being honest, I'll have less to evade.”

Balistreri's sense of humor is tight and sarcastic, and may infringe on some of the “best practices” of mindful, nonviolent communication with its in-your-face critique. However, I suspect that the genuinely sensitive reader will find her piercing observations illuminating in the lifelong trial-and-error quest for Right Speech.

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