Social Media and the internet are reinventing and repurposing language. The most obvious example is that when you say “Joe is my friend”, we no longer know what sort of relationship that is. Are you Twitter friends? Are you Facebook friends? Would you allow Joe to crash on your couch for a week? Would Joe let you babysit his children? Would you lend each other money? There’s no way to know. I used to have a joke with CC Chapman about whether we now needed Friends, with a capital, versus friends, lower case, maybe even more in the acquaintance range, as a designation. However, the true meaning of friends, and even best friends, is becoming murkier.
Likewise, there was an interesting discussion recently about the word “respect”. Some people thought that respect was something earned, like trust, and you only “deserved” it through your actions over time. I think there’s another type of respect that is the base level of human kindness and dignity we should show everyone. This sort of respect is an acknowledgement of each other as people, and includes all of those manners things like taking turns, not budging in line, holding a door open, letting an elderly person have a seat on the bus, being kind to a mom struggling with a cranky toddler, etc. When someone says you should respect people at work, I am sure they hope it is the first type, but that would really be happy with the second type as a starting point.
The more we start to use common words and phrases online, they become infused with all sorts of deeper cultural meanings, each slightly different depending on what group you’re speaking with. For example, I was trying to use the term “faith based” in a joking way the other day, and it through a whole group off- I meant it as a short cut term for “They want me to just believe them that everything will turn out ok, but I’m having a hard time dealing in miracles, I believe more in a plan and hard work” and instead, most people in the room felt I was talking about religion. For example, “Faith based marketing” is often a snarky way to refer to people telling you that if you only spend $X (with a couple of zeros after it) then your business will automatically thrive and you will be a zillionaire. The reality is that the marketing may help, but if your product or service is not great to begin with, no amount of exposure will help you- in fact, if your product is awful, it might actually hurt you.
I’m not sure we’re going to be able to resolve this new homonym problem any time soon. As more words in common usage get co-opted by new tech companies- Who knows what the new app, Yo, will do- the more we’re going to run into problems with clear expression of ideas and meaning.
We’re left with solving these problems the old fashioned way- asking for more information, or perhaps picking up the phone before getting upset over an email or Facebook post. Resolving ambiguity could get to be a full time occupation.
Remember, Clarity matters.