An Honest Manner

Imagine this scene: Sara is a sale representative and Erin is her client. Erin agrees to meet Sara for lunch, and the following week arrives at the restaurant at the appointed time. Sara, however, is late, and when she finally shows up, she says to Erin, “I’m sorry for my delayed arrival.” My guess is that Erin looked politely askance at Sara, because the phrase delayed arrival no doubt struck her as a bit unnatural and unsuitably distant. Almost administrative, one might say. I’ve conjured this scene, of course, and I would be surprised to learn that such an exchange happens frequently in person; I know for a fact, though, that mischoices like this happen all the time in writing.

It has long been recognized that something psychologically peculiar happens when we take pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. We seem to make the decision that it is better to write from a distance, to speak with a professionalized voice, than it is to make our mind known as we find it living with the ideas we want to express. We think, in other words, that all will be better if we write from a persona of some sort, perhaps because a persona marks a role, and a role comes with a script, vocabulary and phraseology all set. If we write or speak as the doctor or businessperson, we can readily don ourselves with all manner of unusual words and special turns of phrase, convincing ourselves quite easily that since we sound like someone, we must be saying something.

But all of this posturing comes at a very high price, because what is most attractive to all of us, in fact, is the truth. In writing (and I would argue in the arts universally), truth is seen not only in what we’re saying, but in the manner in which we’re saying it. The vocabulary we choose, the sentences we build reveal how we regard both our subject and our audience. To write loftily from a professional distance in circumstances that are not formal produces not the authority we hope for, but an inauthenticity that raises concerns in our readers. And their concern is well founded, for all of us suspect that something’s up when someone does not speak or write simply and directly and naturally.

It is true, of course, that we find ourselves from time to time in circumstances which do in fact require a more formal tone, and as good and competent writers, we should be able to modulate our diction (as it’s technically called) to suit the occasion of the writing. It is not, then, formality as formality that is the problem; it is a formality, a distance, an administrative objectivity, we might even call it, which we work up to take the place of a forthright saying of things as we see them. A readiness to write the truth, on the other hand, changes our manner, and it produces the feeling of being real, the psychological concomitant of the truth. And this sense of the real, the natural, produces, in turn, a trust that is essential between writer and readers, because our readers see we are not making an effort to hide or pose. We are willing to put our thoughts and reasons before our readers so that they may think them through, see them as we see them, and then come to agree or disagree.

If this is the exhortation, then what to do? Watch our words closely. If I’m late in replying to your email, saying just that, I’m sorry for replying so late, is a better choice than the distant abstraction of delayed response. Or instead of the windy and woolly there was a sense of need for food on their part, rather, they needed food, or even better, they were hungry. The working rule: get to the honest point, simply and directly. Clarity and precision will be the natural result.


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