Words are slippery items. We now know that the smart conversationalist listens to see whether the important word in a sentence is “dictionary-use” or “situational.” This is not an academic game. Understanding the distinction can be a matter of career life or death. The fact of the matter is that words mean what we want them to mean. So what did Obama mean when he commented that Trump is not ideological? “I think ultimately he’s pragmatic…”
Words are dynamic
In most conversations, words are tweaked. Their meaning is about what one person is trying to get across. We know that tweaking may emphasize values, emotions, priorities, or even a specific insight. Dictionary-speak , where the person is talking literally, is fairly rare in conversations. Instead, like Humpty-Dumpty, words mean what we want them to mean. Talkers often use words sarcastically and ironically. Sarcasm is pretty obvious. When a speaker uses words ironically, he’s signifying the opposite of the dictionary meaning. And that can more readily be misread.
Words are situational
Situational meanings of words can be easily misunderstood, especially when the conversationalist comes from a different background. In fact, a major reason many jokes are misunderstood is that the situational meaning of words and ideas are outside the organizational, educational, or cultural background of the others.
Sometimes words are even subversive. They are used to deflect criticism and still make an important point. Of course, research suggests at least half the time a conversation is misunderstood. Some people who rarely read, who live in a “small world,” miss what’s being said on an almost regular basis.
Is “pragmatic” really pragmatic?
Charles Lane, the Washington Post editorial writer, was being a smart-ass when he listed a number of Obama’s uses of pragmatic. Can you spot the pattern here?
“I found him to be tough, smart, shrewd, very unsentimental, very pragmatic.” —President Obama, after meeting Vladimir Putin for the first time, July 2009.
“I do see in him a big streak of pragmatism. In that sense, I don’t think he is an ideologue.” —President Obama, regarding Cuban dictator Raúl Castro, December 2015.
“Well, the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations.” —President Obama, regarding Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, May 2015.
“I don’t think he is ideological. I think ultimately he’s pragmatic in that way.” —President Obama, speaking of President-elect Donald Trump, press conference on Nov. 14, 2016.
One of the toughest challenges that any president can face is forming a clear-eyed assessment of the other political leaders he or she must contend with. With that in mind, look again. What did you see in Obama’s pattern of speech? What does “pragmatic” mean?
Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.