Before social lives became data and the creators of tools for marketing strategies claimed to understand human emotions and needs better than anyone’s closest connections, we had a sense that doing a good job in each of our relationships, professional or personal, was more related to principles and actions than numbers and algorithms. Some issues in society have been more carefully analyzed, some come up in debates or comment sections with lack of consistency and detailed information: women’s rights, racial and social inequality, economic policy, geopolitical tensions, beliefs and groups of thought, culture and even technology itself. People have ways of expressing their opinions and feelings with care for how they’re going to be received or disregard for repercussions outside their own bubble, but as we navigate discussions and developing narratives, it’s important to keep a few language items in mind, exemplified below.
“Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Addressing problems is routine in formal environments, and while there’s many ways your boss, teacher or coworker will choose to start a conversation about a sensitive topic, this particular question has its own meaning, raising expectations of an uncomfortable situation to endure. It could be anything, from a sudden change in the timetable to an extra shift, a detailed feedback or an unfortunate end of contract. A parent won’t say that to their kids: it’s not how they talk, and there’s probably a whole set of things they can do to show what’s expected of them and how they’re cooperating or not, what kinds of plans they can make or suggest a change in how they live together. If you can’t wait to talk, you’d hear that they “need to tell you something”, but not from your boss, obviously not when you’re about to get fired — and in case that happens, it’s crucial to be able to go through the reasons together, without conflict.
“Could you be more specific?”
If there’s something you don’t understand about what you’re hearing, the easiest way to ask for clarification is: “what do you mean?” Online, you might read a lot of people writing “wym”. But when you’re having a real conversation (I try to avoid labeling interactions as real and totally opposed to fake), it’s more complicated than that. Most of the time, we either refrain from commenting or listen to the whole argument before we have something to say. But who knows, maybe someone online is saying they love music, and you gotta ask what kind of music because that’s sort of a natural thing — if you hear them saying they don’t like music, my tip is run. More than not understanding what someone’s point is, you might be curious to learn more about how they think or maybe taken aback by the language they’re using, confused in your own thoughts or offended by their words (or images, videos, stories and so on). There’s no rule for that kind of situation, but sometimes asking for clarification is actually a tool to expose and hopefully neutralize offensive behavior. Unfortunately, people seem to stick to their attitude more than their points of view, and even when they don’t know what they’re talking about, they fail to make any changes to what they say.
“We should talk more often”
Now that’s something you don’t hear anymore. I mean, talk? You’re following me, watching my stories, liking everything I post, that doesn’t mean you wanna talk… oh wait. One of the biggest issues we need to figure out how to make progress on is just how many people we can talk to on a single day, making sure they feel cared for and not being consumed by expectations of return. For a lot of people, that return is too fast and too intimate, and that raises a set of uncomfortable questions, starting with where you live and who raised you — but not necessarily. I like to think we can meet cool people everyday, as I’ve written many times in the last few years, and it’s okay if we don’t talk again or as frequently as we’d like, but there’s other things in life than searching for people to talk to on the internet. Like, for example, shopping on the internet. Starting your business on the internet. And telling people who have no internet that they have a right to be online. Anyway. There’s also vegetables. You should eat them. And learn how to cook.
“The terms will be updated next month”
One of the main problems with tech is the amount of issues to tackle and lack of time to go through all of them. Every person has a different experience, with needs and perceptions but also a personal history and concerns. When something changes on administrative level, we expect it to be good, but few people look up for details on what’s being decided, what changes for them and whether or not it’s a fair process, and the same happens on global landscapes like social media. Recently, false information got a label generated by the platforms we use the most; privacy has been debated by many, as well as freedom of expression, but it doesn’t look like we’re able to narrow down the categories of harmful content, besides violence and abuse. Too much political debate can cause the regular person to feel irritated, anxious, depressed; too much positivity is not exactly a problem, but ignoring critical issues society is facing, thinking the world is perfect, colorful and filled with joy at every place in the entire planet, certainly isn’t a very realistic posture. One of these issues is whether we’re able to control what happens to our lives on the web, and the discussions are many. In other areas that don’t relate specifically to social media, like how a community is organized, who is in charge of a new project for improving living conditions and how much we need to pay for goods and services, we tend to look for information in the media and choose who we trust, sometimes not having a lot of knowledge of everything that’s happening around us or that one specific topic. Thinking about the future, these aspects that go beyond language can shed a light on what needs to be done to improve life in general.
“Would you say you’re leaning more to the right or to the left?”
I mean, I learned to write with my right hand, but that was before I had a computer. I grab tomatoes with my left hand, cut them with the right. Tomatoes are red, maybe I should be talking about… eucalyptus mouthwash? Seriously though. I read someone describe once that basically corporate power is more a thing of the right while people power is a thing of the left. My dad disagrees. He thinks the left steals money and they only want power for themselves. We avoid most debates. I’m all for social inclusion, opportunity for working families, cultural life and exposing problems like, for example, how finance is a word for the elites — some people even pronounce it differently. But you should be careful. If it’s true that the corporate world has a certain mindset, what’s the corporation you’re referring to? What’s their mission and can you name some of their projects and endorsements? On the other hand (the one that grabs tomatoes, not wallets or anything else), we should all get informed about quality of life, indexes from international organizations and movements that start from a base of people who need change because they wouldn’t be able to get through without it. In spite of controversies, knowing where you stand and being able to engage in conversation (public or private) are things we need work towards if we want to live in unity, respecting each other’s differences and highlighting them if that’s adequate — after all, we all have our particular ways of thinking, seeing the world and experiencing life in it.
The verbs used in these examples have a grammatical category: they’re modals, which add special meanings to other verbs. Other examples are “must”, which indicates necessity or, in a different context, an assumption; “may” and “might”, which express likelihood (some people prefer to say possibility or probability, higher or lower); and “shall”, which I think nobody uses anymore, except a British law firm or Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. It’s totally valid to listen to another teacher talking about how they’re used if you’re looking for a grammar focused lesson, but I would point out that some themes just can’t be avoided. If every English class asked students if they can ride a bike, how many would make friends in Amsterdam? Food for thought.