One More Time—Can We Change?

Last week Jeremy Dean’s PsyBlog posted “Tested: Whether You Can Change Your Personality At Will,”
and then a day later posted “8 Psych Tips for Changing Yourself and Other People.” He reported on a study that found many people desirous of being more extraverted, more agreeable, and more conscientious—all three familiar Big Five traits. Said differently, many people would like to be nicer and more self-disciplined. Hmmm… Nothing new there. 1,959 years ago, plus or minus a few days, the apostle Paul penned an epistle to the Romans, lamenting with them “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” (7:19, King James version)

So, with respect to a common malaise among us imperfect souls, nothing has changed. Society has long valued being nice and being self-disciplined, and individuals have repeatedly lamented their shortcomings in that regard. However, in Dean’s piece, new research suggested that such change was possible. Based on a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dean said individuals showed significant change in behavior (e.g., shaking hands and smiling more frequently) over the course of 16 weeks.

The conclusion of the average reader of both of Dean’s posts would likely be that, if you want to be different, trait-wise, go right ahead. No problem. Make up your mind to smile ten more times daily, to make eye contact with significant others while conversing, or to read a book a month, and you’re a new person. A changed person. Well, at least for 16 weeks.

Here’s my concern with this research and with Dean’s reporting:

  • Most people can keep a new habit going for 16 weeks.
  • People can temporarily adapt to circumstances.
  • Temporary changes in personality are called “states.”
  • States tend to return to their set point, their normal trait level
  • Permanent personality change is difficult if not impossible.
  • Permanent changes in habits are more likely than permanent changes in traits.
  • Traits comprise thousands of habits.

Even such a simple trait as Warmth has many ways of expressing itself—from giving a pat on the back to writing a thank-you note. To change one habit associated with warmth is possible, but it is not the same thing as changing one’s level of warmth. I can double the number of thank-you notes I write, but that is not likely to make me a warmer person, any more than throwing a rock into the ocean would change it into a rockpile.


The problem with making it sound easy to change one’s personality is that it makes people who try to do so and fail feel guilty. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I change? Permanently?

We can adapt to circumstances—for a while. If I am not naturally warm, I can schmooze at a cocktail party for two hours and do all kinds of warm things—smile, shake hands, laugh at people’s witticisms, hug a friend, compliment someone’s achievement or outfit, listen attentively to long-windedness, ask about someone’s kids/parents, and soSophocles forth. But once I’ve done two hours of warmth—an unnatural role for me—I’m ready for my cocoon. Sophocles warned us around 441 B.C.E. about the cost of not adapting to circumstances, about not sucking it up and doing something for the moment that is not necessarily natural for us. Here is Haemon speaking to his father, Creon, in the play Antigone, hoping to sway the king to back off of a decree to take the life of Haemon’s fiancée, Antigone:

No, though a man be wise, ’tis no shame for him to learn many things, and to bend in season. Seest thou, beside the wintry torrent’s course, how the trees that yield to it save every twig, while the stiff-necked perish root and branch? And even thus he who keeps the sheet of his sail taut, and never slackens it, upsets his boat, and finishes his voyage with keel uppermost. Nay, forego thy wrath; permit thyself to change.

Or, more simply, the tree that doesn’t bend with the wind, cracks. Indeed, we must change as circumstances require. I must be warm on occasion. I must be perfectionistic on occasion. I must exert leadership on occasion. But being a warm, perfectionist leader is not my natural temperament. To attempt to permanently change my temperament in that direction would be well-nigh impossible.

In September of 2013, I posted “Changing Habits versus Changing Traits.” This piece summarized the research on neuroplasticity—the science of behavior change. Here was my conclusion:

I’m all for plasticity. However, I think it should be reserved for individuals a) whose natural behavior is not working for them, b), who are not free to change their circumstances in order to build on their strengths and c) who are strongly motivated to change one or more of those behaviors/habits.

To Each Her Own—A Call for Individualized Medicine

June 17, 2015 3 comments

Behavioral Medicine is about the interaction of everyday behavior with medical treatment. One study, for example, found that more introverted persons tend to have longer hospital stays—they enjoy the relative quiet and inactivity. So why hurry up the healing process—slow down and enjoy the stay! In contrast, more extraverted patients tend to be itching to get out and return to their action. If you are a hospital administrator, then you likely would want to call your team together and brainstorm appropriate ways to nudge more introverted patients towards discharge.

Using behavioral information to shape medical treatments would necessitate administering a personality assessment before planning such treatments, plus acquiring a knowledge of the research on behavioral medicine. I have long urged that healthwrong size care providers maintain information from a behavioral personality assessment for review before committing to a treatment plan for an individual patient. Where a trait supports traditional treatment—no problem. Where a trait works against traditional treatment modalities—create an alternate, or supplemental, plan that works like a crutch in support of healing. The treatment must fit the patient, just as the clothing, bicycle, helmet, and so forth, must fit the person.

My wife’s recent surgery illustrates this trait-treatment interaction. The traditional treatment modality for her procedure entailed two days of surgery followed by three days of in-patient rest, physical therapy, and observation. Then discharge.

That treatment approach assumes that the patient is able to ignore significant post-surgical pain levels (seven to ten on a ten point scale) and proceed with physical therapy (i.e., getting out of bed and back down again, wearing a brace and sitting in a chair, walking the halls, stepping up stairs, and the like). Jane exhibits a low level of the Big Five trait called Need for Stability. This means that she is minimally reactive to stressors—a trait that supports working through pain. The surgeon was pleased with her progress.

In contrast, he related to us that some patients who have experienced significantly less invasive and traumatic surgeries, and with somewhat lower pain levels, have taken several days before they were even willing to try getting out of bed, much less walking the halls and stair-stepping. The reason is that they worried that their hurting body was just not up to the physical demands, that they would suffer physical harm if they tried much movement, that they might fall apart, as it were. Such patients likely have higher levels of the Need for Stability trait—they are emotionally reactive. Persons with higher levels of Need for Stability tend to augment the negative, while persons with lower levels tend to minimize the negative. The former is helpful in alerting the doctor that something’s wrong, while the latter is helpful in facing painful therapy.

pain continuum

That’s Individual Differences 101. Persons low in Need for Stability find it more natural to work through intense pain to begin the hospital’s traditional approach to physical therapy. Patients low in Need for Stability do not take to the traditional approach, one which is designed for a highly-motivated, tough-as-nails personality accustomed to ignoring pain. This is not a problem with the patient, but rather a problem with the one-size-fits-all approach of the surgical/therapy team. There was nothing wrong with the other patient’s reactivity—being alert to the body’s signals can be a lifesaver. We had a calm friend in Europe who had uterine cancer but minimized the discomfort for months, thinking it a mild form of influenza. She died shortly after it was diagnosed. If she had been an augmenter, she would likely have lived.

So, what could the surgeon’s treatment team have done to facilitate treatment? Well, reactive people like to emote and get support from others. Emoting is their strength. Knowing what a hospital stay is typically like (I’ve stayed in the hospital room 24 hours a day for each of my wife’s back surgeries), I know that patients have precious few moments for meaningful conversation—lots of darting in and out. How about a patient support group—an area where they could wheel several of their more reactive and outgoing patients to talk among one another about their aches and fears, their hopes for a positive outcome, and what they must do to aid the healing process? Misery loves company, and talking it out tends to relieve the stress and build up confidence.

In a similar manner, two friends had bariatric surgery—stomach by-pass. Both friends initally lost 100 pounds. One gained it all back, while the other kept it off. The follow-up treatment required eating only ¾ cup of food per meal—well-balanced food, that is. One was a perfectionist (we call that being high in C1: Perfectionism in the WorkPlace Big Five Profile). The other was the opposite of a perfectionist (low in C1)—more casual in adhering to quality standards. The perfectionist followed the nutritional guidelines to a “t”—minimal sweets, low carbohydrates, ample protein, plenty of green leafies. The other abandoned the nutritional guidelines as soon as the 100 pounds disappeared. She devoted her life to mayonaise, cream, and sugar, with the result that she regained all the lost weight. The perfectionist to this day adheres to her nutritional regimen—she stays full, is rarely if ever hungry, has occasional sweets and alcohol—and the weight has stayed off.

The success of the traditional treatment plan for such bariatric surgery depends on patients being temperamentally suited to following a regimen, and C1: Perfectionism supplies that temperament. In this case the treatment team needed to plan a support mechanism to assist the non-perfectionist—some kind of crutch was needed. This could have been accomplished by instituting an externally imposed regimen that minimized her self-defeating impulsivity, such as a refrigerator-stocking plan, a peer-counseling partner with weekly support get-togethers, an online support group, a six-days-on/one-day-off approach, a catered meal service, and so forth.

Recidivism could be reduced appreciably if treatment planners would take individual differences into account. Of course, trait levels are not the only influence on the success of traditional treatment outcomes. Family context, support systems, finances, work demands, basic intelligence, physical stamina—all, and more, play a part. The positive feature of addressing trait levels is that they are relatively easy to understand—if a person is a loner, leave them alone, but if they are sociable, it’s party time!maimonides

I think perhaps there’s a book in this. I’ve not seen a behavioral medicine guide for health care providers and home nurses (including family!). Maimonides wrote The Guide for the Perplexed. Perhaps I can do a Guide for the Complex Patient. If you know of one, please make me aware. Time’s too short to do what someone else has already provided.

The Limits of Positive Thinking

June 10, 2015 1 comment

Finding value in misery has achieved something like cult status. However, Barbara Ehrenreich (2009) has exposed this highly touted approach as empty at best and malicious at worst in her volume Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. And other countries as well, I might add. The source of the positive thinking movement was David Spiegel, a Stanford University psychiatry professor who proposed that cancer patients join support groups and dwell on the benefits of life-threatening illness as a way of curing their cancers. Ehrenreich writes:

In the nineties, studies began to roll in refuting Spiegel’s 1989 work on the curative value of support groups. The amazing survival rates or women in Spiegel’s first study turned out to be a fluke. Then, in the May 2007 issue of Psychological Bulletin, James Coyne and two coauthors published the results of a systematic review of all the literature on the supposed effects of psychotherapy on cancer. The idea was that psychotherapy, like a support group, should help the patient improve her mood and decrease her level of stress. But Coyne and his coauthors found the existing literature full of “endemic problems.” In fact, there seemed to be no positive effect of therapy at all. A few months later, a team led by David Spiegel himself reported in the journal Cancer that support groups conferred no survival advantage after all, effectively contradicting his earlier finding. Psychotherapy and support groups might improve one’s mood, but they did nothing to overcome cancer. (p. 97) Part of the problem with Spiegel’s approach is that support groups don’t necessarily contain meaningful relationships, just other random people.

Ehrenreich takes on much more than breast cancer support groups, citing many studies that identify the stressful effects of forcing oneself to submerge negative feelings and only expressing positive ones. Essentially, such radical positive thinking has the effect of embracing the status quo. Everything is ok, nothing is wrong, this is the best of all possible worlds. Dr. Pangloss in the 21st century. Voltaire would likely have a violent reaction to some of the questions and affirmations that are used in “happiness” questionnaires and evaluations:

  • In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
  • The conditions of my life are excellent.
  • I am satisfied with my life.
  • So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
  • If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

Ehrenreich, rightly in my opinion, observes that affirming these questionnaire items is tantamount to being either ignorant of or indifferent towards threats to one’s welfare: climate change, dramatic income inequalities, ideologues attempting to control our options, organizations dear to us that are on the verge of financial collapse, coal ash in our water supply, poor air quality threatening the viability of our respiratory systems, loved ones in need of support.


No, I am not satisfied with my life, it is far from my ideal, I would change much on my second go ‘round, and many important things I want from life are still out of my reach (at the moment). I am not a grouse, nor am I am Pollyanna. I want more. I want language fluency, and I am willing to work for it. I want to master the Vivaldi piccolo concerto that profoundly deaf Evelyn Glennie shamed me with during her recent performance. I want to read, digest, and share so many books that my eyes ache at the prospect.

When the positive thinkers create websites that urge folks to “Get rid of the negative people in your life,” they are asking us to get rid of people with consciences, people with ideas, people with noble discontent. Without pessimists, bridges would be weaker. With only optimists, details would be lost. We need the creative tension of positive and negative. Certainly excessive negativity, like excessive positivity, is toxic. Like William Butler Yeats’ phrase (from the poem “Sailing to Byzantium”), we must “perne in a gyre.” We must balance forces as a gyroscope spinning on a string, careful not to get too close to either extreme lest we fall.

(Excerpt from my book, The Owner’s Manual for Happiness, where it is presented as one of 15 myths about happiness.)

E pluribus unum—Mysticism or Magic?

As a child I always had a warm, fuzzy feeling when I saw “E pluribus unum”—on coins, dollar bills, or elsewhere. It was another of those bromides from growing up—“Love one another,” “Do unto others as….” They were like road signs for living—somewhere in between a command and a nudge. With E pluribus unum, I felt an urge to submerge my self into my group so that I didn’t stick out. From many, one.

From church choir to marching band, from basketball team to Boy Scouts, I daily encountered this ideal. While I have a very strong sense of self, I know that when I choose to be a part of something bigger than me alone that I must blend in and momentarily abandon that sense of self.

Like the bands of a rainbow, none more important than another.


Like the hoopsters in Hoosiers, who must pass before shooting.

Like the players in a quartet, who must match in intonation, vibrato, dynamics, and rhythm, as though they were clones of one another.

Like a chorister, who must be as selfless as a minnow in a swarm of other minnows, as though they were a family of 20 identical twins with interchangeable, indistinguishable voices.

Like Blue Angel jets in formation, or swimmers in synchronized array.

It is not that we must always be selfless, but that we know when to blend in and when to stand out. Clearly our politicians would benefit from experience in blending in—they seem so threatened when urged to be bipartisan.

Making one from many is both mystical and magical. It is mystical inasmuch as I feel awe when it happens. It is magical in its unpredictability—you strive for it–blending, blending, blending–and finally it happens. My choir director says, “Listen more than you sing.” E pluribus unum.

As my wife prepares for surgery, my hope is that her surgical team will be just that—a team, and not a bunch of superstars—all attuned to one another and moving together in a complex dance of life—one leads now, then another, as necessary, with leading alternating with following as egolessly as night yields to day, as alto blends with bass, as the passer’s assist blends into the shooter’s two points. And from the team’s many, my wife made one.

And, of course, I must end with the words of my friend Lee who told of the Buddhist monk requesting of the Coney Island hot dog vendor, “Please make me one with everything.”

What Causes the Blahs? A Decalogue for Keeping Engaged

Lethargy. Ennui. Dragging. Can’t get going. Almost feels like depression–you’ve got the blahs.

When the blahs take over, you just can’t focus your attention and become satisfyingly engaged in something you’d normally relish—reading, cleaning, building, studying, creating, analyzing, practicing, and so forth. Benjamin Disraeli once wrote that “Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action.” Therein lies the essence of motivation (from the Latin “movere,” to move)—movement, or action. Motivation is a motor in gear and making progress of some sort.

However, having the blahs doesn’t just mean that your body is disengaged—your mind can’t wrap itself around anything either. Not a good place to be! And the common ways of trying to cope with the blahs only tend to put you deeper into ennui: eating, drinking, sleeping, watching television, or…just sitting or lying there, your mind vacant.


Time to turn to my “Autopilot Restart Checklist”! This list is an abbreviated version of Table 12.1 from my book The Owner’s Manual for Happiness. The blahs are a symptom of staleness of some sort—either you have been doing something for too long, so that it has become stale, or there is something you haven’t been doing that you normally enjoy doing, and that makes other stuff stale.  So post this list in your man-cave or woman-cave—a place you’re most likely to feel the blahs most acutely and wish for some kind of healthy pick-me-up.

Pierce’s Decalogue for Curing the Blahs:

  • Take a break. If you’ve been doing something for a long time and are out of gas, take a 180° turn—do something different, something that uses a different sense perception. If you have been using your eyes, then use your ears or move your body. If you’ve been moving your body, then do some paperwork. If you’ve been using your hands, then exercise with the hula hoop. If you have been writing, groom the family pet. This allows your over-used senses to reset.
  • Change-up. Similar to taking a break, but for longer periods. If you’ve been reading for an hour, switch to re-organizing something. If you’ve been socializing for a while, close the door and have some solitude. If you’ve been alone for a while, immerse yourself in an activity with one or more people. If you’ve been quiet, turn up the volume. If you’ve been charging forth in a fast tempo, slow down. And vice-versa. If you’ve been mindlessly engorging, slow to a snail’s pace and savor every sip, sniff, bite, eyeful, and earful. Let your mind react fully to sensory experience—imagine where that chocolate bean grew, and what would be its perfect liquid accompaniment.
  • Inventory your passions. I keep a list of my four passions by my work station—develop relationships, learn something new, treat my senses, and translate theory into practice. Sometimes staleness results from unexpressed passions. Review your passion list and determine what you’ve been ignoring. For me, if I’ve ignored relationships, maybe it is time to write a letter to a friend. If I’ve ignored my senses, perhaps it is time for a square of chocolate, or to make some fresh pesto. If I’ve not learned something new, perhaps it is time to read up on the history of the homeland of one of my international associates. If I’ve not translated theory into practice, perhaps it is time to review my notes on a recent book I’ve read and create a training activity.
  • Check out your body. If you’ve missed sleep, take a nap. If you’ve not exercised, do so. If you’ve eaten too much, go for a walk. If you’ve been inside for a long time, go outside for a while (to get fresh air and sunshine). If too much alcohol, switch to water or coffee. If too much caffeine, get some exercise to burn it off. If too much sugar, get some exercise to burn it off.
  • Inventory your traits. Which extreme traits have not been expressed recently? For example, if you are highly organized and have been living in relative chaos recently, then get organized and clean up. Or, identify a weak trait that you have been overusing recently, and do the opposite—e.g. if you are naturally solitary and have been schmoozing for days, then take time for yourself with an extended solitary project—read War and Peace, build a model, learn a new piece of music, write your autobiography.


  • Inventory your abilities. Are there mental abilities that you are good at and enjoy but that you haven’t been using? If so, then identify a project that would engage that ability. For me, I have high auditory skills. Especially during the summer, I run the danger of prolonged stretches in which I do not experience my favorite music—either as listener or performer. This is because my normal music groups are idle. This is the time to make something happen, like a covered dish madrigal evening, an afternoon chamber music session, or maybe even a trip to the mountains to catch a concert at the Brevard Music Festival.
  • Inventory your values. A value is what is important to you. It could be something more abstract, such as Achievement, or something more concrete, such as a musical instrument. Identify a value that you have not expressed in some time. For example, for me, I value my rosewood alto recorder, but I haven’t touched it in a couple of months. I could pick it up and practice. Or, I could give it a rubdown with linseed oil. Do something with a value you’ve neglected to let it know you still care for it and are willing to work to keep it in prime condition. [Pardon all the music stuff—that’s just me. Substitute an old baseball glove for the recorder—practice and/or rub it down with lanolin.]
  • Check in with your goal(s). If you have one or more goals, ask which needs attention. Then make a list of actions both small and large that you might take to get closer to attaining that goal. If you do not have a goal(s), then make one. You could start by making a bucket list—things you’d like to do before you kick the bucket. Once the list is begun, pick an item and make a move towards realizing it. If the bucket item is to learn Chinese, then get a subscription to Rosetta Stone. If it is to build a doll house for your grandchild, then find some plans on the Internet. If you have a bucket list, then you have goals! You just have to pick one to focus on. If you have so many goals that you are stymied by the enormity of it all, then it is time to sit with someone close to you and ask them to help you establish priorities.
  • Check your self-other balance. Been serving others at the expense of your own needs? Then do something nice for yourself. You can’t serve others effectively if your own machine is run down—so make time for some personal preventive maintenance. Been selfish for a while? Then do something nice for others. Marian Wright Edelman wrote, “Service is the rent we pay for being.”
  • Consider your legacy. Ask what you are doing that future generations (both your family and the world at large) will remember you by. If nothing, get started by forming an appropriate goal. It could be something as lofty as endowing a chair in your favorite organization or as humble as building a bench for the weary in a neighborhood park. At a minimum, everyone could write their autobiography—that’s not egotism, but providing answers to others’ questions once you’re no longer to answer them in real time.

For more ideas, and for elaboration on these ten guidelines, read my book The Owner’s Manual for Happiness—Essential Elements for a Meaningful Life

Jumping Out of My Skin—Some Thoughts on Flow

May 20, 2015 1 comment

Here I am at my desk with statuettes of the smiling Buddha and the arm-waving Ganesh silently urging me on—cheerleaders determined to keep me at the top of my game. These inert deities only have the power that I give them, and I daily bestow them with the gift of being my conscience.

The thing is, when I see them, something’s amiss—I’m not concentrating, I’ve lost my focus, I’m distracted, my eyes are wandering,  I’m out of flow. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a state of mind in which one is so absorbed in the moment that they have lost all sense of time, temperature, hunger—in short they’ve lost touch with the rest of the world. All their energy is focused on the immediate task. When a teammate tiptoes into my office and gently calls “Pierce?” I usually jump in my chair, startled away from my focus and jerked into the world around me.

Buddha, Ganesh, Buddha, and Ganesh arranged below my monitor at CentACS

Buddha, Ganesh, Buddha, and Ganesh arranged below my monitor at CentACS

“Time flies when you’re having fun” could just as well have been “time flies when you’re in flow.” Flow is akin to the currently popular Mindfulness. But I prefer flow, like a river gently, inevitably moving forward—neither drying up nor flooding its banks, neither rough nor still. Flow is a stick fallen into a river that has floated miles downstream with only minor detours, perhaps from mountain to ocean.

Flow is not happiness. In fact, for most of the time I’m in flow, I feel no sense of emotion. Occasionally emotions accompany my flow state, but normally flow is emotionless–a positive state of well-being that I want to inhabit as often as possible.

Also, I am in control of flow in two significant ways.

First, I chose a task or activity that is neither too difficult nor too easy for me. If it is too easy, I become bored, as there is no need to pay close attention and dig deep with effort. If it is too difficult, I become frustrated. Flow is not associated with playing it safe. Flow is associated with stretch goals, with trying something that is just demanding enough that I really have to try hard. For me, to practice Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star would not lead to flow, as I’d be bored. Conversely, to practice the Vivaldi Piccolo Concerto would not lead to flow either, as I’d be frustrated. The one’s too easy, the other too difficult for my skill level.

That leads to the second way that I am in control of flow. When I am bored with a task, I can get into flow in one of two ways—either by decreasing my skill or by increasing the difficulty of the task. So, if I am bored with practicing Twinkle with my granddaughter, I can decrease my skill by selecting a musical instrument that I play poorly. I have about fifty instruments in my collection, and several are unfamiliar to me. Or I could increase task difficulty by attempting to create a new harmony. I did this recently—our granddaughter played Joyful, Joyful (Beethoven) on the guitar, and I made up a harmony using my bass recorder.

On the other hand, when I am frustrated with a task, I have options similar to the foregoing—I could simplify the task or increase my skill level. In the case of the Vivaldi concerto, I could slow the tempo considerably (simplify the task) or I could spend more time practicing scales and arpeggios at brisk tempos (increase my skill level).

Being bored or frustrated is unpleasant. But we can fix our own mess—there is no excuse for staying frustrated—simplify or practice, nor is there an excuse for staying bored—complexify or self-handicap. When I see Buddha or Lord Ganesh, I smile at myself and know that I’m out of flow. Time to stand up, walk around, and re-approach my task with the aim of figuring out how to get back into flow. Ah, my eyes are tired—I’ll try changing my monitor’s background from white to yellow to alter the glare and renew my attention. Thanks, Lord Ganesh. And a nod to my laughing Buddha. Because I’m back in flow, the next time someone interrupts me I’ll gladly jump out of my skin for them!



Keep it simple, sir! One month ago I wrote in praise of brevity. Today I write in praise of her sister—simplicity.

In short, when you intend for all who read your writing to understand it, then keep it simple, sir. My first encounter with this principle was the 1978 monograph by Richard Wydick “Plain English for Lawyers.” Now available as a book (and in its 5th edition), it urged lawyers, among other things, to end the use of legal redundancies. These hair-pullers, such as “mete and proper” and “will and testament,” are vestiges of legal writing from the middle ages in England. Prior to the Norman Invasion of 1066, England was dominated by two rival languages—Latin and Old English—spoken by the Romans and the native Anglo-Saxons. To insure clear communication, key terms in contracts, wills, and so forth appeared twice—once in the language of the natives and again in the tongue of the invaders. Accordingly, “mete” is an Anglo-Saxon word, “proper,” Latin. Similarly, “will” is Anglo-Saxon, “testament,” Latin. This tradition continued when the French invaded in 1066, and they replaced Latin with French (which is not much of a switch, as French mostly derives from Latin). The use of these translation pairs was necessary so long as England housed two rival language groups. By the 16th century, neither Latin nor French were common, and Modern English ruled. No longer was there a need for these redundancies in legal documents.

But persist they did, so much so that many lawyers and judges today, ignorant of this linguistic detour, insist that subtle differences in meaning attach to each member of such pairs, and that to omit either member of a redundant pair would put the author at risk. Nonsense! Ignorance! One doesn’t need a Last Will and Testament–only a Will.smplcty

Obfuscatory (from the Latin for “to make dark”) language in all its forms tends to put a cloud between reader and writer. In addition to legal redundancies, other difficult words abound:

  • Jargon
  • Buzzwords
  • Foreign terms
  • Showy technical terms
  • Gobbledygook
  • Polysyllabic words (with Latin or Greek origins, such as “utilize,” when a simpler Anglo-Saxon version would do the job—“use”)
  • Wordiness (I could have said verbosity, but…)

And then there are unnecessarily long sentences, as when the writer uses a comma instead of a period, and the sentence continues to chug along, while the reader struggles to recall how the sentence began, and then has to reread the entire sentence, and maybe even the preceding sentence (or two), before understanding is possible, and they begin to build up resentment towards the writer, and the writer is in clear danger of losing their reader, all because of the failure to use periods, which could be blamed on undemanding teachers from the writer’s past, but could just as easily be blamed on thoughtlessness and failure to edit or poofread, but then who….   J

To be readable is to use short sentences and short words Readability formulas, such as the Gunning Fog Index and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (which Microsoft Word offers), calculate the number of years of education required to read a passage. The formulas determine the average sentence length and the average word length for a document. Hence, “Jesus wept” is more readable than “the Saviour lamented.” I calculated the grade level required to read my previous silly paragraph. The result: 46.4. Only 50-year-olds and above need try to read me!

The temptation to dazzle the reader with polysyllabic and seldom used words must be managed. When I am reading for pleasure (e.g., novels) or for instruction (e.g., textbooks), I do not mind being sent to a dictionary. I enjoy learning new words and relish well-chosen ones. I remember reading Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain with dictionary in hand—the novel is photographic in its precision of verbal detail. Many words I could define from context, but others were like new fruits that needed definitions in order to taste.

But for instructions, manuals, memoranda, contracts, wills, letters of agreement, and other documents whose value rests on their clarity and ease of understanding, give me brevity and simplicity. Some states have passed Plain English laws—New York was the first, in 1978. These laws protect consumers against obfuscatory language in contracts. If you are sued for breach and can prove the contractor’s language to be obfuscatory, you can successfully blame your noncompliance on obfuscatory language. (Sorry, I DO like that word!) “I would have done what you required if you had communicated clearly with me.”

Not all states have a Plain English law. Does yours? President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act in 2010. It requires all government agencies to use clear language that citizens can understand. The government provides a sample web page to announce an agency’s pledge for plain writing and to ask their customers for help in identifying instances where they’ve failed to do so.

Gordian Knot

Preachers are notorious for obfuscatory sermons. One gets the notion that many sermons are not intended to communicate, but only to soothe or disturb. I have created my own Listenability Index for Preachers (LIP): I count the number of jargon/buzzwords per sentence, sampling ten or so sentences from the sermon, and then find the average number of obfuscatory words per sentence. The less listenable sermons tend to average around 50% jargon. Example: “The grace and glory of the Lord be with you forever and forever, Amen.” That’s six jargon and eight plain, for an index of about 43%. The more listenable preachers come in under 5%. Example: “Go from this place and be helpful and friendly to those you meet.” Free and clear of jargon. I once complimented a pastor from Princeton on his fresh, direct language. He thanked me and confided that he consciously avoided religious language in preference for the everyday.

Another way to gauge simplicity of text is to apply Seymour Epstein’s two modes of information processing—Expository and Narrative. Expository mode is more abstract, much like a dictionary definition. Narrative mode is more concrete, like a story. The best writers and speakers mix it up—they make a point by using expository mode and illustrate the point by using narrative mode, or vice-versa. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is a master of this technique—he will take one or two paragraphs to make a point, then illustrate with several concrete examples. I have found that speakers who lean more heavily on one than the other are not listenable—all expository is boring and hard to understand, and all narrative is shallow and irrelevant. Expository: Distraction lessens pain. Narrative: Apply an ice pack to your aching back so that you will feel the cold rather than the pain.

When you want others to understand, keep it short and simple. Otherwise, dazzle them with jewels from your word chest.


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