What’s Smart about the Dumbing Down of Language

In a recent Salon post, writer Erin Coulehan laments the dumbing down of language—a trend that, according to a new study, directly relates to one’s tendency to consume digital content. The study, which analyzed the writing samples of MBA students, found that “students who consume primarily digital content (such as Reddit and Buzzfeed) had the lowest writing complexity scores, while those who often read literature and academic journals had the highest levels of writing complexity.”

Beyond mourning the internet’s influence on writing style (“Not reading [classic literature] makes us sound pretty dumb and unrefined”), Coulehan seems far more perturbed by its harmful impact on “social perception and empathy.” She writes: “How sad for younger generations to not know the value of reading a text and subsequently becoming completely enthralled by the way the words make you feel. It seems we’re increasing exposed to gimmicky videos and emoji, full of sound and furious images of eggplants or crying –through-tear faces, symbolizing nothing.”

With respect, I must wholeheartedly disagree.

Now, I’m not exactly unbiased about emoji usage, which indeed seems to be taking over our linguistic ways of life. (Case in point: I recently texted the “grimace emoji” to my Cleveland Cavaliers-loving mother as a way to smooth over her complaints that I sent my son to school wearing a Golden State Warriors jersey.)  But emojis aside, I think there’s a valuable lesson to be learned here about the simplification of language—and it’s all about human connection.

The thing is, whether it’s the prevalence of memes, short phrases, or the recent proliferation of single words intended to convey strong feelings—paring down our communications to the simplest emotional elements works. And while obviously not appropriate ways to communicate in all settings, these devices remind us just how important it is to break through the clutter of an information-saturated world and connect with our audience at an emotional level.

In a recent New York Times essay about the proliferation of the word “thing” (and the ironic observation that “calling something ‘a thing’ is … itself a thing”), writer Alexander Stern agrees.

“It would be easy to call this a curiosity of language and leave it at that,” he writes, “[But] My assumption is that language and experience mutually influence each other. What might register as inarticulateness can reflect a different way of understanding and experiencing the world.”

In sum, although no one’s suggesting that you incorporate cat GIFs into your communications plan, I do encourage you to work harder to connect with your target audiences using the power of simple words.  As we know all too well in these troubling times, doing so can be a very effective way to leverage human connection for the greater good.