Language choices were made

English is a bitch of a language. It’s imprecise, follows rules… until it doesn’t feel like it, and lacks the right word for entire swaths of human emotion and experience.

And yet, English is capable of great cunning and impressive cleverness. Take, for example, the passive voice.

Scourge of good writing, we are told to eschew it. Take responsibility! Take action! It’s hardly the most subtle of cop-outs when companies and politicians are trying to do crisis management, but boy do they love it for that purpose.

Passivity can be used sneakily, too. And it can make you wonder if the person meant to do that, or did it subconsciously, and so quite possibly meant the opposite of what was said, but felt obliged… or something.

To wit: I recently returned from three weeks overseas. These two sentiments were said to me. (See what I did there?)

“We missed you.”

“You were missed.”

Now, at first glance those two phrases might appear to say the same thing. But do they? The first one pretty explicitly states that the people in question (i.e. with whom I was conversing at the time) missed me while I was gone. Aww, thanks.

The second phrase backs that up โ€” I was missed โ€” but does it say by whom? Nope. So can I assume the person who said it actually missed me? Nope. Well, depending on the relationship there, perhaps. But what if it was someone with whom you weren’t well acquainted, or who might have an unknown agenda?

The person who said it could mean he/she missed me. Or that person might not have missed me at all, but wanted to sound good and curry my favour with apparent expressed affection. And so basically he/she might have made a statement resting on the assumption that someone probably missed me, and if I want to assume that person was one of them, so be it, but he/she isn’t going to just come out and say so. Convoluted, no?

Now, I might be cynical (hell, I’m all kinds of cynical), but I find language fascinating, especially when in use with people you don’t know inside and out. Like would your Mom ever greet you after weeks away with, “You were missed”. Not bloody likely.

Sure, analyzing relationships this way might be courting trouble, but with some people, I consider it an act of sanity to apply some rigor to our interactions. People are sticky and messy, and some are fairly diabolical.

While you don’t want to be ruled by paranoia or “what ifs”, it’s not a bad thing to be cognizant of people’s efforts in how they present themselves. At the very least it can make you more aware of how you present yourself as well.

Goodreads quote of the day

“The aim of literature … is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.” — Donald Barthelme

I like this very much. And I suspect the “strange object covered with fur” would be an amazing assignment for kids to draw. ๐Ÿ™‚

A Calendar of Tales

One of the initiatives for the BlackBerry 10 launch (I started working there in May, as you’ll recall) was bringing on board three celebrity ambassadors to do various things with their crafts, involving a Z10 phone. While I am interested to see what Alicia Keys and Robert Rodriguez do, they are not my primary interest. However, my love of Neil Gaiman and his works is well known.

That love increased exponentially when he announced his project, A Calendar of Tales. He asked 12 questions on Twitter, one relating to each month of the year, and then wrote stories based on 12 selected tweeted responses. Alas, none of my responses were selected, but he did retweet my January response, which pretty much gave me an all-day nerdgasm.

That was part one, and the stories were published yesterday. Download the PDF for your reading pleasure.

The next part is art. Those who’ve been participating via Twitter, or anyone who reads the Tales, really, is invited to make art relating to one or some or all of the stories. Medium is up to you. Then 12 pieces — one per month — will be selected, and A Thing will be made. A calendar, a book… something.

Can’t wait. ๐Ÿ™‚ Gotta say, this has been cool enough and community-creating enough to suspend my cynicism about (anyone’s) corporate marketing… for a bit.

The areas of my expertise

In case you’ve ever found yourself wanting to listen to me talk for a really, really long time, your opportunity has arrived!

Last week MaRS kindly invited me to TO to present in their Best Practices series. I talked about social media for small business in an hour-long presentation, followed by a half-hour Q&A. They also did a shorter, five-minute “Hot Tips” video of, ostensibly, my bonnest of bon mots.

The full media pile of videos, slide deck, and notes is here: MaRS: Social Media for Small Businesses.

Use your words

A few weeks ago at my family birthday lunch, I observed my niece, who is two, having a fairly lengthy conversation. With the vacuum cleaner. (Since there were no people in her immediate vicinity, I specifically asked if thatโ€™s what she was talking to, and she confirmed it.)

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. Turning two a couple months prior to that seemed to flip a switch with her talking โ€” before that she talked very little. More, I think, because she couldnโ€™t be bothered than because she didnโ€™t know how. And why should she? She did pretty well getting people to understand what she wanted from a handful of words, whines, and poking. The conversation with the vacuum cleaner, while not entirely composed of recognizable English words, was the longest chat Iโ€™d heard her have.

Which got me thinking.

Continue reading “Use your words”

A Thousand Words

suitcase in the hall outside the neighbour's door

The other evening I came home, and, stepping off the elevator, saw this. No one around, couldn’t hear any voices from inside the apartment, door closed, suitcase just… sitting there.

My brain offered up half a dozen stories about how the suitcase came to be there before I even made it the short distance to my door. So I thought recording snippets of a couple might be a fun exercise. I couldn’t tell if they felt cliched, or just familiar, writing them. There is… more than a hint of autobiography throughout.

Picture 1

Tea had seemed like the most important thing in the world, just then. Once they’d parked the car it seemed imperative that they get their coats off and the kettle on as soon as possible.

A phone call at your desk on a Wednesday afternoon when you’re wrangling a spreadsheet macro and forgetting again to water your desk plants. And the voices spew information too quickly for the next few hours, under sickly greenish lights. Fell down the stairs? Visiting Marie?

And your sister arrives… some time. You fleetingly wonder who called her. Right, that desperate hug and the questions before she even lets go, her coat still so cold from such a brief time outside. Did you change the sheets in the guest room? Most of the arrangements will be done by the time your brother-in-law and the kids, among others, arrive on Friday.

You forgot where you put the parking garage ticket until you were nearly in tears. And now, long after you’ve forgotten to eat dinner and your sister has forgotten that she hates drinking black tea, her coat has fallen off the chair where she dropped it and her suitcase is forgotten in the hallway.

Lacing your fingers around your mugs, perhaps the steam from the Darjeeling will open your brain the way it opens pores, and help you process that you are technically a newly minted orphan.

Picture 2

It still somehow felt like a video. Making eye contact just after she pushed through the doors, rushing through the crowd, and a hug that threatened to meld the two of you. Followed by a kiss whose awkwardness could be easily forgiven with its enthusiasm.

I mean, my God, it had been a year. A year of emails and text messages and Skype chats and even the occasional package delivered to the office containing random evidence of her appreciation of beauty. But through all that she remained just… media, in a way.

You don’t remember a second of the walk to the parking garage, and almost nothing of the hour’s drive home, though you tried, desperately. Listening intently to her tales of travel, shaping the sound of her accent in your mind. Sneaking glances at her profile and trying to memorize the curve of her lower lip without losing your concentration on the road entirely.

She made it easy on you once you’d turned your key in the lock. She had you pinned to the wall, and to her. You never had a chance to do that thing with your foot to keep the door from banging.

And finally, she became real. But not until the next morning when, after slithering out of the warm cocoon you’d made of the bed, she returned minutes later, laughing and pulling behind her the suitcase, which, tellingly, had spent the night in the hallway outside the door.

Sunday afternoon

I know when the rain starts falling
Muddled light
On the breeze
minerals, asphalt, ozone
wafting the curtains
The patter on the leaves begins
But first
in the park
silence noticed
Shrieks and laughter
bundled into minivans
Home for dinner.

Working with geeks

A couple of weeks ago, VeloCity (the residence/program for entrepreneurially-minded, media and mobile-lovin’ students at University of Waterloo), capped off a startup week with the VeloCity 101 mini-conference.

The students had started over a week before, brainstorming ideas, forming groups, and getting going on Startup Weekend-like projects of basically building a company and product from scratch (although in a slightly longer time frame).

The following weekend they gathered for presentations from local folks in the tech industry, and to do their pitches for the projects they’d been working on. Jesse Rodgers, their intrepid co-director, was kind enough to invite Carol (our CEO at PostRank) and myself to speak. Basically, I was the only non-CEO on the docket that day.

Jesse suggested a few potential topic areas, including an overview of community management, and “working with geeks”. The second one amused me, and Lord knows I have plenty of experience, so I wrote up a bunch of notes, gathered up the remains of my cold-addled intellect, memory, and voice, and headed over to the university on the morning of Saturday, the 16th. (I am fairly certain this will be the only time in my life that I lecture in one of University of Waterloo’s Engineering lecture halls.) ๐Ÿ™‚

Aaaaanyway, lack of of a slide deck and a brief fear that Daniel Debow, the day’s first speaker, was stealing my thoughts aside, I think things went well. There were some laughs, a few students stopped to chat afterward (since when do students have business cards?) and my voice remained functional until the following morning, when my four-day adventure in laryngitis began.

I’ve finally finished cleaning up the notes for the presentation, which can be found at my new professional site: VeloCity 101: Working with Geeks. (It’s a bit hefty, so you might want to go get a coffee first.)

SXSW panel – Beyond Aggregation: Finding the web’s best content

This was the panel I was on in March with Marshall Kirkpatrick, Micah Baldwin, Louis Gray, and Gabe Rivera. No video, but you’re not missing much. ๐Ÿ™‚

Podcast

Amazingly, no cigarettes were harmed in the making of the charming voice I’ve got going there. Just several days of talking, yelling in bars, and lack of sleep. w00t!

This is a picture of me that a nice man named Joel Housman took after the panel. I’d forgotten all about it until I found it yesterday whilst trying to find a picture of me on the panel to show my parents.

Me with cowboy hat, SXSW panel, 2009