Everyone knows that it is not nice to make fun of people. Especially for being ignorant. Often, people who have not learned something just lack exposure and opportunity. But I once worked with a group of people who turned this premise on its head.
The Sales and Marketing department in our small company included several wise-cracking, funny, literate salesmen. They were smart young men who enjoyed their work camaraderie and sometimes behaved like overgrown frat boys. The department also included a low-level administrative employee with abominable, often embarrassing, communication skills. Her spelling and grammatical errors were elementary-school level and the sales guys often had to rewrite or cover them up when dealing with customers. In dealing with trucking companies she would ask for the “bill of ladies” (bill of lading) and she once used the phrase “self-defecating humor” (self-deprecating humor). Yeah.
To complicate matters, this inarticulate employee had delusions of grandeur. She referred to herself as a “female executive,” and participated in nasty office gossip and back-stabbing at every opportunity. No one was spared. Because of her attitude, the sales guys considered her fair game. Their favorite pastime was to bait her with a word they knew she would not understand. When she asked what it meant, they would answer with a synonym they knew she would also not understand. The conversations went something like this:
The operation was completely clandestine.
You know – surreptitious.
He was really obsequious.
You know – sycophantic.
Her face was inscrutable.
You know – enigmatic.
They knew that pride would prevent her from asking a second time, so they enjoyed watching her pretend to understand the answer. It wasn’t nice at all, but it was an example of what happens when you act as if you know more than you do. It puts a “Kick me” sign on your back. Most people learn by first admitting they don’t know everything, and they look things up. They read. Listen. Pay attention. Double-check.
This is why I advocate writing within your comfort zone. It’s when we step out of that area that we get into trouble. But that doesn’t mean we can’t always be trying to expand that comfort zone. I learn something every day, especially from fellow writers and editors. With vocabulary-building, as well as other skills, sometimes the first step to learning is a little diffidence.
You know – humility.
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