Opinion: Art of reading the room

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Writers are often guided by the aphorism to “write for their audience.” Like most truisms, it seems reasonable enough. While the Italian language may be beautiful, an article penned in it for a Chinese audience is probably not ideal. Even those few who might understand the words are likely to be lost in the nuance. It is generally better to meet the reader where they are. Don’t make folks work too hard to figure out the point.

Likewise, a third-grade textbook aims toward a very different target than one penned to graduate students in theoretical physics. Arguably, the elementary school volume is more accessible. Still, while there are few who could make use of the latter, a solid argument could be made that it is the more substantive and important. The famed plays of William Shakespeare have been molded into countless forms, but it is in their original, now antiquated and difficult (to some) arrangement that most would suggest being superior.

In attempting to be understood, do we dumb ourselves down to the point that we insult our listener and casually make them dumber, too? Should we not communicate above the fifth-grade level? Or might we simply expect more of ourselves and our fellow humans? They are not as like a troglodyte as we might expect. We all have word gaps. Is it the same to hold that we were “lazy after eating” as to say that we found ourselves lost in our “postprandial torpor?”

Intentionally using language to exclude should shame the speaker, not the listener. But shouldn’t intentionally assuming a readers ignorance disgrace the writer, just the same? It has never been easier to look up a word and learn a bit. And we are not as smart as we think, and others are not likely as stupid.

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