Friday, April 30, 2010

They Want to Communicate

The local middle school holds a career day for its students every spring.  Because I have some of the same kids year after year, I try to come up with a new viewpoint for each presentation.  This year, I focused on writers who are making a good living but whose names are not in the public spotlight.  It turns out, that was a good move.  Only one student mentioned JK Rowling.  Last year, she was the role model for at least ten of them.

I put six names on the board – three men and three women.  They included a screenplay writer, the head writer for a video game, a lyricist, and the writer of a famous ad campaign.  I talked about all the ways a person can make a career from writing. 

The kids had not considered this.  In their minds, writers do one of two things: writers are journalists or writers are novelists. 

From conversations with coworkers, I know that writing is not a focal point of modern education.  Students do not spend a semester diagramming sentences or learning about past participles.  The lack of understanding about how their own language works is causing problems.  What surprised me was that the kids said as much.  They told me that they are sometimes confused by their friends’ Facebook postings or things they read in class.  They complained about poorly constructed sentences and words that don’t mean what the writer intended.

And guess what – most of the kids wished they liked to read and had the opportunity to do more of it.  They realize that reading is as important to their futures as writing. 

These kids want to communicate effectively.  We do them a terrible disservice if we assume that writing skills are no longer useful.  It falls to us to provide them with the tools they require to lead fulfilling lives.  Will the kids moan and complain?  Sure they will.  That’s part of growing up.  But it is our job to push them and prepare them for their futures.  Let’s make sure they get what they need – and obviously want.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

It's Not Their Fault

Thursday was tax day.  Like many others, I stood in line at the post office waiting my turn to mail returns.  It was a long line so I overheard several conversations at the windows.  In the half hour I stood there, several people angrily accused the window workers of everything from theft to greed.  I work for a tax accountant so I experienced a bit of that myself this year.  People blame the post office employee or me because they don’t like the way their tax dollars are being spent. 

First of all, I think we all agree that greed in Washington is hurting our country.  Greed in our states and greed on Wall Street are doing the same thing.  Contrary to what the character Gordon Gecko proclaimed in a movie, greed is not good.  That said, let’s move on.

Much of what I overheard is indicative of citizens who are not well-informed.  The post office does not get funding from Congress.  In 1970, President Nixon signed an executive order that created the United States Postal Service.  The Post Office Department ceased to exist and was no longer a cabinet post.  Control of the new service passed from Congress to the executive branch.  The postmaster general was replaced by a board of managers and a service CEO. 

The postal service sells bonds to cover its deficits.  Sound familiar? 

Is the post office poorly managed these days?  Undoubtedly.  Is that the fault of the people who work the windows? No more than badly-run AIG is the fault of a middle-manager’s secretary. 

If you are angry about the way in which your tax dollars are spent, write or call your political representatives.  In other words, focus your communication efforts where they might do some good. Making some poor postal worker the target of your rancor hurts both of you.

Monday, April 5, 2010

How Soon is Soon?

In January, a friend told me that she would soon receive a promotion.  In March, my bank emailed an announcement to its customers that soon it would have a new program for its business accounts.  Last week, my boss reminded us that tax season would be over soon.

According to Webster’s dictionary, “soon” means “almost immediately, shortly, rapidly, in a short while.”  To my mind, soon is within a week or two at most.

So, my friend, whose promotion will effective on June 1, received her promotion eventually, nearly five months after she was told about it.  My bank still has not issued any information about the new program so their “soon” is actually defined as “when they feel like it.”  The only statement remotely close to being accurate is the one made by my boss because the official end of tax season is April 16 – even though my colleagues and I will be doing payroll tax returns until the end of April. 

One of the things my editor cautions me about repeatedly is that I must understand the meaning of words when I use them.  Language is the key to communication in all its forms and if we do not properly convey our intended meaning, we confuse those for whom the communication is intended.  Wars have started for lack of good communication.

Perhaps we use “soon” when we are reluctant to be held to a specific time frame but “soon” has some expectation of immediacy built into it.  If you tell me at the end of February that my account will be credited soon, I expect to see that credit before the end of March.

I suppose “soon” is like many over-worked words in our language.  We use it because it is convenient and the meaning is somewhat nebulous. 

I will soon end this entry with the hope that “soon” will soon be replaced with other, more precise words and that companies or people live up to "soon" whenever they use it.

Now is a good word.  I will end this column now.