Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Never, Ever Trust Anyone Who Utilizes the Word Utilize

I was about to write this blog on the Pursuit of Stupidness (I know, the word is stupidity, but I'm trying to cleverly use an alliteration here).

Anyway, I was looking for references to the pursuit of happiness on google and found an article in Psychology Today that took at least three pages of text to say what I would say in a half page (with pictures). I only contrast the Psychology Today article with my own writing as Chris Kisling has previously pointed out that my blogs may be a bit long. The PT article was crazy long.

There were several things in the article that made it suspect. (By the way, if you're a very serious person, please don't read this blog.)

Name Dropping
A really easy way to avoid the requirement of making logical and self-verifiable statements is to simply attribute the statement to someone of note. Reporters use this technique all the time; rather than going through all the effort of building a logical progression that leads from point A to point B, they simply say that, so-and-so with thus-and-such credentials says blah-blah-blah. Amazingly, once people hear that someone whom they respect said something, they buy into it hook-line-and-sinker. Sigh...

This phenomenon is not limited to popular writers. Over the past few years, Iris and I have had amazing opportunities to work with passionate and talented people from numerous disciplines who are doing everything they can to make the world a better place.

One wonderful group of people at Oxford established a new initiative to address issues of poverty and human development. To help launch the initiative, Iris and I flew to England to design and build a website and to help with the launch activities.

Dining at Hogwarts
It was an amazing experience. We were invited to attend a dinner at one of the colleges with a "high table" on a raised platform in the front of the hall; it was kind of like going to Hogwarts for dinner.

After dinner, Iris pointed out (based on guidance from the woman sitting next to her) that I'd managed to violate most of (if not all) the rules of etiquette. Of note, I had spent much of the evening asking "why" questions, when apparently "what", "where" and "when" questions were considered appropriate. (There were also other rules such as never talking about a woman who was not present. But, that's another story.)

At that point I assumed that I'd just experienced an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and was grateful for it. However, much to my surprise, Iris and I were graciously invited to the college chaplain's quarters for whiskey and discussion.

Whiskey and Discussion
In the chaplain's quarters, we and a small group of scholars were presented an array of whiskeys, each accompanied by a brief description of its origin and character.

Our whiskeys in hand, we embarked upon an evening of discussion.

As we talked, it occurred to me that every time someone made a statement, they quickly backed it up with references to the writings or statements of others. Although I now understand this to be the standard in academic circles, for me it felt like a combination of insecurity and cheating.

I mean, if you want to say something, say it! and then back it up with logic and verifiable facts. Don't just say, "it's true because so-and-so says it's so."

My first response to a statement attributed to someone else is usually something on the order of, "that's great, but what do you think?" This situation was no exception.

As I asked my questions, people in the room were wonderfully polite and let them slide by without comment. Slowly though, they engaged and we got to what each person was really thinking for themselves. I found the thoughts that these amazing people had were much more insightful and interesting than the appropriate and documented statements with which we'd started.

At the end of the evening, we were invited to return any time that we're in town. For me, hearing what people believed and why without justification based on someone else having said it was wonderful.

What's All This Got to Do with the Word Utilize?
Well, as name dropping is a way to convince people of an argument that lacks merit (note, the concept itself may have merit, I'm just talking about its presentation), using "big" words when not-so-big words would be more efficient, is a great indicator that the person writing either has no clue about what they're saying or, alternatively, no clue about English.

In the Psychology Today article, the writer makes the following statement:
"What is happiness? The most useful definition--and it's one agreed upon by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioral economists, positive psychologists, and Buddhist monks--is more like satisfied or content than "happy" in its strict bursting-with-glee sense. It has depth and deliberation to it. It encompasses living a meaningful life, utilizing your gifts and your time, living with thought and purpose."
Note the really stupid reference to neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioral economists, positive psychologists, and Buddhist monks as though the writer actually did a survey and knows that the preponderance of opinion among these groups is supportive of her statement. It's not so much stupid in the sense that the writer wrote it as it is in the sense that the editors approved it and, no doubt, many people bought it.

Note, I don't necessarily disagree with the writer, I'm just talking about how dumb the presentation is.

But back to utilize. The question is, "Why use the word utilize, when we have the word use?".

Or, maybe I should say, "Why utilize the word utilize, when we could just as easily utilize the word use?"

In my experience, the reason people often use words in writing or presenting arguments that they would never use in ordinary conversation is to somehow artificially prop up an argument that they can't otherwise defend. Essentially, let's sound smart.

Enough Ranting Already
OK, I'm done with my little (Iris just pointed out long) rant here. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it.

In the end, my conclusion is that I love talking with people who say what they're thinking and then back it up based on clear understanding and a desire to explain versus a desire to prove a point through attribution, reference and the use of words that are supposed to sound smart.

What do you think?

PS, Brian just read this and said that it actually felt shorter than most my blogs. Chris, we need you to weigh in.


  1. I'm ont the "this is not short" team.

    I loved that oxford story - even if I have a different take on refering to people. To me refering to names are not justifying what I say, it is acknowleding that someone else said it before me. To me not mentioning the person is like pretending to serve homemade bread when I actually bought it down the street. So I could look into why I find it more valuable to make up something than buying what someone else said - and why it is "not fair" not to tell who said it before me.

    I got the point about utilizing, but I thought that it was a differnt subject.

    My biggest learning from the utilizing part was that at times I get cought up with things which are not really the point - and in this exampel I hold the belief that there are difference between the two words - and I'm glad that Shakespear was using a broader vocabulary than the average american.

  2. I too generally look for the personalization factor. For me its all about relating ideas. Nothing irregular about commenting on whether or not one buys into an idea expressed by another, simply respect to the origins of beliefs one may or not also share their own choice to embrace, share or amend. I think I see the issue you explored. thanks bw

  3. Joy,
    I really like your point regarding attribution and definitely agree that we don't want to pull off something as homemade bread when it's store-bought.

    So, for me, the question then becomes one of intent. Am I referencing someone so as to prop up my position, or, am I referencing someone so as to acknowledge their contribution.

    The other thought that comes to mind is one of efficiency versus depth. On the one hand, why reinvent the wheel? If someone has already figured something out, then why not reuse it?

    On the other hand, if I don't actually go through the process of figuring out something, have I really learned it? Or, have I simply memorized it?

    In so many ways, the wealth of knowledge that we have available to us via the Internet has caused us to become a generation of people who look for the answers in the back of the book rather than working through the exercises ourselves.

    Of course, I sometime err on the other side, e.g., not stopping to ask directions.

    Thank you for your great comments!


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