Tag Archives: communication

Are we trivializing the language of death?


May 19, 2011

I recently discovered that an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen for several years, had passed away. It came as a shock.

I didn’t know how to reach her family, so I did the only thing I could think of to connect: I looked her up on Facebook.

There I found pages and pages of condolences, most written about (let’s call her) Jane, the more traditional way. But some were written to her, as if she were still alive.

There were comments like: “OMG…RIP SOOOOO sorry to hear of your passing.” “Luv n thoughts r w u, i hope ur @ peace wherever u r.” “You are now somewhere safe and worry free!”

“R.I.P. YOU WILL BE MISSED SOOOOOO MUCH!!” And, “I’m sorry, Jane.”

Somehow I felt pressured to write her a little note as well. But it felt odd, uncomfortable even. And I wondered why.

I get that Facebook is a place to mourn — a digital gravesite, if you will.

But the difference is that what I would say graveside to my friend, or write in a letter to her parents or loved ones, is private. With Facebook, everyone’s condolence is there for all to read.

But what really bothers me is that these postings seem so mindless — that people don’t even have the courtesy to write a proper sentence to someone who has just died.

Digital deathspeak

Internet expert Jesse Hirsh suggests that the flippant comments could be some people’s way of addressing the absurdity of a death when that person’s profile is still active.

Today’s social media, he says, merely reflects a society that is increasingly secular and doesn’t yet have a protocol for dealing with death in a respectful manner.

Another element here is that digital technology has allowed us to adapt to a different model of communication, says Marco Adria, director of the Master of Arts in communications and technology program at the University of Alberta.

“We don’t write things to have them interpreted, we write for them to be broadcast. Like a radio broadcast, once it’s said, it’s gone.”

Now it’s making sense. Now I understand the posting: “I WAS SO PRIVILEGED TO HAVE KNOWN YOU.”

It’s a kind of Sarah Palin-style shout out — folksy and inappropriate at the same time.

But that’s okay, says Adria, “because conversations are complicated. Talking to the dead online can be easier than talking to people in real life, which can be messy and not turn out as you want.”

Dead people talking

Also, it’s becoming easier to write to the deceased, especially if they have a Facebook, Twitter or other online account. Their identity is still as it was — their interests, photos and postings, the causes they support — they’re all still online, even after they pass away.

“Technology works as a metaphor,” says Adria. “We refer to it as the net, as channels, as a transmitter. So just as we use it to chat with the dead, the dead can end up talking as well.”

And talk they do. There are dozens of famous dead people who don’t just have Twitter accounts, but communicate through social media as if they were still alive.

The stand-in for a witty Queen Victoria tweets: “Let me make this clear, I do NOT require 38 ministers to advise me on the happenings of the Dominion.” Dom Perignon (who always seems to be drinking) recently re-tweeted: “Prince Harry Gives ‘Brilliant’ Champagne Toast.”

 Britain's Queen Victoria (1819-1901). She really doesn't tweet, you realize. (Reuters)  Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

Edgar Allan Poe constantly offers words of wisdom and Charles Darwin, in his dull note-taking style, tweets a description of each leg of his trips.

But perhaps William Shakespeare sums it up best when he tweets: “All this is but a dream.”

The late Marshall McLuhan (who incidentally has a Twitter and Facebook account) would no doubt agree with this otherworldly communication.

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan argues that technology is an extension of the human body. And that when you use technology, you lose part of your body.

For instance, the telephone extends the voice but “amputates” the hand used to write correspondence. The computer extends so many parts of the body — brain, voice, hands — that we lose other natural abilities.

In effect, says Adria, we tweeters and tech users become disembodied — ghost-like.

So, perhaps, we’re just as ghostly as the ghosts we communicate with. We have become more used to sending online messages into the ether than having face-to-face conversations.

Still, while I’m all for the Facebook tribute page, when it comes to commemorating the deceased, I’d rather make sure my message actually gets to the people most affected by the loss here on Earth.

That means writing my message by hand and sending it to the family.

The Business of Language


August 6, 2007

It’s a languid summer afternoon and I’m tasked with fashioning a light radio piece on what not to wear to work. Two stylish men lolling outside a Bay Street office tower are my first victims.

One of them tells me that men wearing lycra bike shorts in the office, especially before morning coffee, is utterly unacceptable. He grimaces, chortles, then becomes serious.

He says what’s worn in the office has morphed over the past couple decades. It used to be that suits and ties were the norm, but the dot-com revolution changed all that by going ultra casual. Nowadays, jeans are paired with open dress shirts and blazers. 


“We’re expected to be everything to everyone,” he sighs. And that made me think: fashion is just one form of expression that’s adapted to a society pressuring us to be all that we can be, and more.  

Just like the attire we wear sends out different messages, the language we use in the world of business has also taken on multiple meanings.  In an age of globalization, business (wo)men are having to supersize: provide more to a demanding customer. 

Take emails, for example.

Marketing professor at Queen’s University, John Pliniussen, says we’re still expected to stick to a conventional letter format with proper syntax, capitalization, and salutations for professional communication. However, there’s also an expectation we know when to send a cool, flippy email to show our more social side.  

He tells me he’s just finished sending an email to an MBA student, half formal – answering career queries – half chatty, ending off with an emoticon. Pliniussen says that nowadays, clients and audiences are much more diversified, composed of different age groups, genders, and ethnic backgrounds.

To properly address those audiences, he says: “You have to understand more the power of colours, words, numbers and nuances.”  He adds that we’re expected to be able to flow into and out of different modes of communication on demand. 

That’s not a bad thing. This linguistic dance gives value to a wide range of communication skills and keeps us on our toes. 

The language of business also shows its multiplicity in the lingo related to technology. Lingo develops with every generation, evolving with what Pliniussen calls gecomacts (generational communication activities). 

Every new generation develops its own unique expressions that help brand it, based around activities. It’s just that now, there are so many ways to communicate with the written word.

Each innovation supplies its own language: the internet, blackberry, cell phone, and now Apple’s new iPhone, which will likely generate its own lingo. They’re all ways we can communicate with customers and colleagues, tailoring messages appropriately.


Another way in which business language refuses to be buttonholed into one fixed meaning is buzz words.

They’ve long been used to represent an industry’s philosophies and vision, but an advertising insider says that ever since ‘branding’ came on the scene in the mid-1990s, they’ve really taken off, some even jumping into the mainstream. In this sense, buzz words are used to convey a desired image, to sell people on an idea or product. 

“Buzz words are simply a new way to express an idea that is actually common sensical but gives the impression that you own it,” says the advertising insider.  

She says they’re more important than ever in an era where marketing has become such a science, where more and more people come equipped with marketing degrees to deal with savvy, scrupulous customers.

But the problem with buzz words is that they can have so many meanings, they can become meaningless: vague words that mask unformulated decisions and ideas.  

What do ‘synergistic’, ‘value-added’, ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘shifting the paradigm’ really mean? ‘Moving forward’? Where else would you want to move?Why say ‘ideate’ when you mean ‘think of ideas’? 

My personal favourite is an advertising industry expression: ‘strategic integration and executional synergy across all communications’. Translated: don’t waste money and make sure your message is consistent. So why don’t people just say that??

Buzz words are the epitome of trying to prove we’re all things to all people, a push to show we’re knowledgeable – even when we’re not.

Are today’s buzz words going too far in the quest to impress:  are we selling out our language? 

Adopting new ways to be creative reflects a changing society, but there’s still a need to retain meaning. The purpose of language, after all, is to make oneself better understood.

In the early days of my journalistic schooling, I was taught that a journalist’s job is to communicate in the clearest way possible. I frequently comb through media releases, looking for the ‘real’ words tucked behind buzz words and other meaningless expressions — words that communicate something substantial about the issue at hand.

Purposeful words are rare, therefore coveted. Communication that gives meaning to every word lays thoughts and emotions bare, with no words to scamper behind.

I advocate a real economy of language. It just makes good business sense.