Say what you mean
Choose the right words
A confusing report
During the holidays, Melissa went for an interview to get a part-time job. When Mr Lim, the manager, asked questions, she replied immediately, and with a big smile. Melissa found the questions easy. Yet, at the end of the interview, Mr Lim found that he did not know any more about Melissa than he did before they met. He was not as satisfied with the interview as she was. How did that happen? Take a look at a part of their dialogue:

A job interview
Mr Lim: Hello, Melissa. How are you? How did your exams go? Did you do well?

Melissa: Hi. Yah, sure, the exams were okay. Did I do well? Ummm, maybe, maybe not.

Mr Lim: I see. What are you going to do during the holidays?

Melissa: I'll go to that mall that has those thingies - you know, the thingamajigs that light up when you pass by? They're hot - I can chill there.

Mr Lim: Sounds fun. Will be you spending many hours at that mall?

Melissa: Yah, more or less. My sister and I always go there for lunch. We like chicken rice.

Mr Lim: Chicken rice? That's interesting. Do you like chicken rice more than your sister?

Melissa: No, I like my sister much more than chicken rice. She's bad – yeah, sick... I love being with her!

Mr Lim: Oh? Okay, never mind. Melissa, do you think you would enjoy working in our office?

Melissa: Yah, sure... whatever. Thanks a lot!

If Mr Lim were to take all Melissa's words literally, then he would conclude that she must be a somewhat mixed-up person. He just wanted some clear answers to help him to decide whether Melissa would fit in well with his staff. Instead, Melissa's words were often vague and she used slang that Mr Lim did not understand. The ambiguous chicken-rice question made matters worse. Melissa's chances of getting the job were spoilt because of these three stumbling blocks to clear communication.

Too-vague phrases
The problem here is that the words or phrases are so vague that their meanings become unclear. Melissa's "maybe, maybe not", "more or less", "whatever", and repeated "Yah, sure" are neither here nor there as answers.

Sometimes, people are vague purposely. When parents ask where their children have been, some reply, "Out." Obviously, the parents already know that and are asking for more details. Kids may avoid being specific because they went somewhere they were not supposed to go or simply because they feels too tired to answer properly. But, neither of these was the reason for Melissa being too vague. Using vague phrases had simply become a habit with Melissa.

Upside-down words
Melissa used too many slang words that only city teens might know. Slang has always been around - wherever there is language, there is slang on the side. The issue here is not so much whether slang is right or wrong. It is more about whether you want to be understood properly when you speak. Melissa did want to be understood by Mr Lim. But, she did not realise that her slang words left him clueless about what she was trying to say.

Some slang is easier to translate than others. Mr Lim guessed what Melissa meant when she said "thingies", "thingamajigs", "hot", and "chill". But, he was totally stumped by Melissa calling her dear sister "bad" and "sick". That is because these slang words have been turned upside down into the opposites of their original (and real) meanings. How was Mr Lim supposed to guess that "bad" means "good", and "sick" means "wonderful" in teen slang?

Two-way sentences
The way in which Mr Lim worded his chicken-rice question did not help Melissa because she misunderstood what he meant. The question was ambiguous; it could have more than one meaning. A much clearer question would have been: "Who likes chicken rice more, your sister or you?"

Such two-way sentences are often used as harmless jokes. Comedians love ambiguous sentences because they make audiences laugh. After all, didn't you find Melissa's reply hilarious? It wasn't funny for Melissa though to have interpreted the question differently from what Mr Lim meant. Poor Melissa gave an answer that left him unimpressed. This part of their conversation shows us that even managers and other adults should pay attention to how they word their questions if they want to get good answers.

Pick words with care
These three ways of speaking can trip you, too, when you are being interviewed for school admission, a scholarship or a job. But, surely, those are not the only times when you want to be understood by others. Wouldn't you rather be understood at all times by anyone and everyone you speak to? In which case, practice avoiding these three verbal handicaps right away.

If you think that there is no harm in talking like Melissa, then picture this. Melissa grows up speaking and writing in this way all the time. Worse still, she becomes a teacher in your school. A very well-behaved student who loves school and has topped his class might get a report card from Teacher Melissa like the one at the top of this page.

Nobody would want a report card like that. Nor would we want exam questions, reference letters and contest rules written by Teacher Melissa. Whether it is work or play, good communication makes a huge difference in our lives. That is why you should steer clear of vague phrases, upside-down words and two-way sentences. As far as possible, say what you mean clearly and precisely.


The series is brought to you by What's Up in partnership with the Speak Good English Movement of Singapore.