Say no to unclear language, don’t believe the hype!

Vague language can mislead, misdirect and mystify. A scholar of the Finnish language points out that we should demand clear speech from our politicians and authorities.

What an intelligent, educated person! His speech was so convincing and so confident. But wait, what did he say exactly? I don’t think I understood half of it – or at least I couldn’t repeat what the point actually was.

This has happened to most of us. We notice only afterwards that the fancy words and complicated sentences actually served to obscure the underlying meaning. Politicians and public authorities in particular are often berated for using unclear or misleading language.

The criticism is understandable. These figures who wield public power should be at the service of the citizenry, particularly since some of them are actually elected by the populace.

“But it’s not just politicians using vague language. Advertising is full of misleading statements. And jargon trickles from expert statements into journalistic language. We all use unclear language sometimes,” says Vesa Heikkinen, docent of the Finnish language and specialist at the Institute for the Languages of Finland.

The motives for using unclear language can be different. An advertiser wants to sell a product. A person telling little white lies is trying to spare the feelings of their companion. A politician is trying to influence and convince. Someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about will use convoluted language to hide their ignorance.

In his 2016 Kansalaistaito, which was nominated for the Tieto-Finlandia award for non-fiction literature, Heikkinen analyses the language of politics together with journalist Tapio Pajunen. His previous books have examined the language of public authorities and newspapers.

Speaking frankly

Good general language could be considered the opposite of unclear language. According to Heikkinen, typical unclear language is jargon with many specialist terms used by experts of a particular field.

He points out that the language of medicine is not inscrutable in itself. Doctors and medical researchers do understand each other and the specialist terminology they use. When they talk amongst themselves, these terms have exact meanings which all colleagues understand. The jargon becomes a problem when it invades general speech and is targeted at people with no medical training.

Specialist terminology is often abstract, and, in Finnish, commonly features long compound nouns. Educational scientists talk about “learning environments” and doctors about “malpractice”.

“Unclear language typically obscures negativity. Mistakes made by doctors or nurses are called ‘malpractice’, and a rent increase is a ‘rent adjustment’. Many find this annoying. It would be better to be frank,” Heikkinen says.

Twisting the numbers

Numbers can also be used to confuse an audience. In politics and finance in particular, figures can be used to argue and convince.

“The same numbers can be used to justify diametrically opposite decisions, depending on the emphasis. For example, it’s important to notice whether the numbers are being compared to the previous year or the previous decade,” Heikkinen points out.

Prime Minister Juha Sipilä has been known to use folksy metaphors to describe his political aspirations.

Metaphors are commonly used to make an abstract thing more tangible. Comparing a complex issue to a familiar phenomenon can help illustrate it to the audience. However, often the effect is the opposite. The metaphor becomes a riddle.

“A metaphor can also have ideological underpinnings. When we talk about a brain drain, it boosts the status of researchers, for example. When  construction workers move abroad, it’s not called a brain drain, it’s something else entirely,” Heikkinen quips.

Mystery is allowed

Speech coach and researcher Juhana Torkki emphasises that vague speech is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes inexplicable language can have positive results. Seemingly inscrutable terminology has developed over time to serve very specific communication needs.

As examples, Torkki mentions poetry, which is fascinating exactly because its language is imprecise, or irony, which intentionally means the opposite of what it says.

Another niche for unclear language may be in the tentative conversations of an infatuated couple on their first date.

“On a date, people often use expressions which can have multiple interpretations. Sentences trail off, unfinished. We don’t show the other person what we’re thinking, we want them to try and figure out the mystery. It’s a kind of game,” Torkki describes.

The skill of beating around the bush

Sometimes ambiguity is necessary. Torkki  gives the example of an emergency situation where a police officer tries to prevent mass panic and further damage by speaking in a calm but vague manner.

Many also use unclear speech at home. Parents of small children use euphemisms to discuss topics which are not intended for little ears. A father’s enthusiastic praise for his two-year-old’s first scribble of a stick figure may not be the most honest art criticism. A teenager may spare her parents worry by glossing over the details of the previous night’s party.

According to Torkki, Finns commonly cherish clarity and truthfulness to the point of naiveté.

“A friendly ‘how are you’ is still often met with an excruciatingly detailed list of the responder’s various health complaints and everyday misfortunes.”

Journalists must question

Politicians use numbers as proof, and Heikkinen and Pajunen also turn to figures to support the arguments in their Kansalaistaito. They quote the Demokratiaindikaattorit 2015 report, according to which 70% of Finns consider politics to be so complicated that it is difficult for them to follow.

Unclear language is a main contributor to this difficulty.

Vague speech has been recognised as a problem in politics for decades. It has been used to explain low interest in voting. There is even talk of a failure of democracy.

But how can we deal with the unclear language of our politicians?

Heikkinen proposes discussion.

“The best tools journalists have are good old stupid questions. They could play dumb. It’s more difficult for regular citizens to address politicians, but social media provides some opportunities,” says Heikkinen.

Think first

The easiest way to get past the vagueness when politicians, officials, researchers, doctors, supervisors – anyone, really – speak, is to ask.

“A better solution would be to generate a culture of clarity in workplaces and public administration. We should communicate in a way that can be immediately understood. It’s inefficient and expensive when a person who has received a decision from an official has to call the office to find out what the decision means,” Heikkinen states.

He believes that the recipe for clear and unambiguous communication is simple. Good general language works in almost any situation, and it is universally understood.

A straightforward speaker can also tailor the language to each audience. Public officials may speak to their colleagues in one way, and to the general public in another.

A good speaker also understands the message.

“It’s true that if you’ve thought out your message in advance, it’ll be easy to communicate it clearly. If you don’t understand it yourself, how will you explain it to others,” Heikkinen points out.

This article was published in Finnish in the Y/02/17 issue of Yliopisto magazine.