The Write Stuff
How to Insult Your Audience
One of the great benefits of driving to visit relatives over the holidays is the opportunity for self-improvement afforded by mile after mile of NPR.
It’s so uplifting, and the hosts of the programs take great pains to put listeners at ease by using language we of the Great Unwashed can understand — even when they discuss weighty topics.
“Hey, I’m Rund Abdelfatah,” a host of Throughline begins an hourlong exploration of the history of American evangelicals, striking what the producers no doubt hope will be an offhand, inviting and conversational tone. “OK, so,” or simply “so,” serves as a transition from one subject to another, and instead of “etc.,” our hosts will truncate a series with “you get the idea.”
Things are “really big” or “pretty good,” and co-host Ramtin Arablouei tells us that the fundamentalist movement in America was “led by a guy” named William B. Riley — you know, a guy, like you’d bump into at the bowling alley.
‘A Bunch of Things’
The history of evangelical involvement in politics is complicated, of course, which means Riley and his successors have had “a bunch of things to sort out” — not a series of issues or controversies to contend with, but a “bunch” of them, like bananas or grapes. Not all evangelicals, it turns out, were always “on the same page.”
One of the academic experts the hosts interviews is asked “to tell us about yourself” once she has already begun to pontificate, and exactly what these professors teach is vague at best. One of these professors is agreeably casual too. He says that some position or other taken by one of the founders of evangelicalism “wasn’t super popular.”
After nearly an hour of this, listeners who begin to feel slightly patronized, if not insulted, by this tone of studied informality should be forgiven for doing so. It’s like being talked down to, as if we would change the channel if the hosts used grown-up language.
‘Halting, Affected Delivery’
Others have commented on the NPR style, not only in word choice but in the halting, affected delivery its hosts employ, which seems to result from the same well-intentioned impulse. Writers in The New York Times, for example, have puzzled over it, once tracing these tics to the internet, “the most powerful linguistic relaxant outside of alcohol,” and David Foster Wallace’s “‘slangy approachability.’ … If I could attempt to transcribe it, it sounds kind of like, y’know … this.”
Is This Writing or Speech?
Is the style “more like writing or more like speech?” one writer in the Times asks and decides it has become “a contrived and shambling hybrid of the two. The ‘sort ofs’ and ‘reallys’ and ‘ums’ and ‘you knows’ that we use in conversation [have been] codified as the central connectors in the blogger lexicon.”
Maybe it is nothing more than an attempt to appear more authentic than the basso profundo that distinguished radio broadcasters of old, which no one these days trusts.
Whatever the case, the NPR style of contrived casualness has become an affectation itself, and if you feel tempted to employ it in your own writing, just lie down. The temptation will pass.
ANNOYING WORD OF THE MONTH: Superpower. Everyone has at least one superpower now, and they can’t wait to tell you what it is. You don’t even have to ask. All CEOs have to have superpowers, and if you want to rise in the corporate world, you’d better get one. Now companies themselves are expected to have superpowers, and in Forbes, we’re told that every corporate leadership team needs to have as its superpower a command of “strategic communication.” Guess who’s telling us that? The CEO of a firm that specializes in “strategic communication” that even has “strategic communication” in its name. What a surprise!
MIX THAT METAPHOR:
“The governor-elect would be wise to not only keep the rock-solid foundation laid by Underwood and her team but to build on it at full steam, in part as a road map to help him serve all Virginians.”
— Lisa Vernon Sparks, Opinion editor, Richmond Times Dispatch, Dec. 19, 2021
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