Here’s the Plan

It’s been a while. A lot has happened since the last time I posted. My Conversations in Korea series is probably finished because I’m no longer in Korea.

I wish the Conversations in Korea series had come to a more pleasant ending. I interviewed a friend of mine in Seoul who also happens to be a North Korean refugee. Unfortunately, the founder of the organization we met through asked me very strongly to take the interview down. It’s a long story, but in short: a guy I always suspected of being a drama bomb bombed his drama all over my parade.

That’s what happened to my last post in the Conversations in Korea series. And I haven’t posted again because I’ve been busy moving to Thailand.

I made some predictions in my first blog post at the start of my year in Korea, but I sure as hell didn’t predict moving to Thailand.

map sk t copy

Here’s the plan.

I spent my year in Korea teaching full time and building a writing portfolio during my off time. Writing is a tough thing to get into because you have to have a portfolio to get any sort of paid writing gig, and  you have to do writing to build a portfolio. So at the start, you simply have to write for free. I did that during my off time, then slowly built my way up to paid writing assignments.

I had a few interviews for full time writing jobs during my last couple months in Korea. I lost one because I wasn’t currently in the US. I lost a couple others because of that bullshit where they ask a vague question and then infer huge meaning from some minor nuance in your answer.

No joke, I asked them for feedback when they told me I didn’t get the job. It was the nuance thing. One of them was a gaming company back in the US. They told me that I must not be the kind of person who integrates well with local cultures because I play their game on an American server rather than playing on the Korean server.

If they had simply asked about it directly, they would have learned that I was working with a 100% Korean staff, wrote in depth cultural analysis pieces on Korea, and hardly even spoke to any non-Koreans during my whole time of living in Seoul.

I hate job interviews. They’re like a test in small talk.

It was only a month before my teaching contract finished and I didn’t have much of a plan. But the top item on the list of that half-assed plan was written in bold font with all caps:

no more teaching copy

I had a conversation about the cost of living with a friend who lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Down there, it’s about half of what it costs to exist in Los Angeles. I asked if it’d be possible to move in with him while I figure my life out.

He said that’d be fine.

I told him I’d like to take advantage of how cheap it is there to try freelance writing for a bit, though I’d still be looking for full time work as well.

He said that’d also be fine. He’s an easy going guy. His name is also Michael. We were going to be Mike and Mike. 

One night I was looking up how much money I’d have to make to survive in Arkansas. The site I was using had a US map with little colored dots from green to yellow to red, depending on the cost of living. Fayetteville was greenish-yellow. Los Angeles was dark red.

Then I had an inspired moment. I zoomed out to see the world map. I realized that if I just wanted a cheap place to live, I could do way cheaper than Arkansas. I’m a young (ish), single (ish), man (ish) and the writing I do is all online. I could go anywhere.

That, my friends, brings me to Chiang Mai, Thailand. A city among the world’s lowest cost of living for a modern place. Most meals are about $1-2 USD and my rent is $135 per month, ~$205 after bills. The plan is to be here for three months, but I’ve already demonstrated how poorly I do at sticking to a plan.

I came here prepared to write or starve, but it turns out that I saved a lot more money from Korea than I expected and I can live in Chiang Mai a lot cheaper than I expected. This is good for my peace of mind, not as good for lighting a fire under my ass and making me write.

fire under the butt copy

There’s the plan. A good plan? I’ve never been able to tell. But it is in fact a plan. Now the story of the next three months will be the battle against my kryptonite: self-motivation.

And who knows. Maybe we’ll see a new interview series. “Talks in Thailand” has a nice ring to it.


Illustrated by: Melissa Beth Rose 
Written by: Michael Smit

Conversations in Korea: Mr. K the Taxi Driver

I asked him if he had any funny stories about driving a taxi and he thought for a moment.

“Three years ago I picked up two drunk customers,” he said. “They wanted to go to a farm at the top of a mountain. Maybe they lived there, I don’t know. I answered the call and dropped them off at the top.

“The road was very narrow on the way down. And dark. Suddenly, I stopped because a boar ran onto the road. It was big. I had never seen one before. It was so big. I heard they can attack people.” He held his hands next to his mouth with the index fingers up like tusks and swooped his head at me.

“I worried that if I used the car horn, maybe it would attack. I turned off the lights and the engine. It was me and him on the mountain in the dark. I was so scared. He didn’t move. Just sit in front.”

After fifteen minutes of staring each other down, the boar moved on. But Mr. K would never forget his moment on the mountain with the wild.

taxi vs boar1 copy

I met Mr. K because I was late to work. I usually took a bus to work, but I had to get a cab if I was late. This wasn’t a problem. Taxis are everywhere in Korea. And they’re cheap. My school is five miles away, and I can get there for just five bucks.

There’s a taxi stand right next to my bus stop. During the slow hours, taxis line up here to wait for customers. I can look out the window right now and see the taxi line. There’s seven cabs. But during rush hour, people line up to wait for taxis. There’s no need to call one. You can stand on any street and immediately find a taxi.

So I stood on the street and waited until a taxi picked me up. I got in and told the driver, Mr. K, my school’s address. Halfway through the drive, he asked me in clear English for help understanding the lyrics of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” He played drums in a rock band and they were covering it. I helped him with the lyrics and he gave me his number, telling me to call him if I ever needed a taxi.

I never did need a taxi. I bought a bike. But two weeks ago I decided I’d love to know what it’s like to be a taxi driver in Korea for a day. I called Mr. K for the first time and we arranged to get lunch.

taxi line copy

“How old are you?” Mr. K asked. I had just told him how many years I had been teaching English. He was surprised.

“I’m thirty.”

“You look so young.”

“Yeah, I don’t know why.”

“Your skin is white and clear.” Despite all the formality of Korean culture, they’re very direct when talking about appearance.

“I guess so.”

“My skin is green and unclear,” he said.

I disagreed. He actually looked very young for his age, and I had told him so before. But he’s a modest man.

He said, “Too much sun on my face.”

“You mean you get too much sun while driving?”


“How many hours a day do you work?”

“Twelve to fourteen hours.”

“Wow. Twelve to fourteen hours in the car? Don’t you get tired?”     

“So tired. My back gets sore from sitting all day.”

He explained to me how he tries to get out and stretch while waiting in the taxi line during slow hours, but it’s not so easy. Every time he gets out to stretch, the car in front gets a passenger and the whole line moves up. So he stays in the car all day.

“What was difficult when you first started working as a taxi driver? For example, it was really difficult for me to manage time when I first started teach.”

“The first time I started,” he thought for a moment. “Well, I have to be in the car all the time, like I told you. That was difficult. I do many things in the car. For example, I have an exercise band.” He moved his arms to demonstrate how he uses an elastic resistance band, pulling it across his chest. Like pushing open elevator doors.

Sometimes he practices drumming on a pad he keeps in the car. He pulled up a picture on his phone. It’s a single drum pad that holds onto his leg with a Velcro strap.

He also reads while waiting for passengers. He even met his girlfriend because she was a customer.

Mr. K gets a lot done in that taxi cab.

phone drum leg copy

When he finished, I asked him, “What hours do you like the most? Night hours or day hours?”

“I liked the night hours when I first started, so I did that for about two years. It’s better money. But it’s too much trouble. Now I work daytime hours from seven in the morning until nine or ten.”

“What kind of trouble did you have with the night hours?”

“I had a lot of trouble. Drunk people. Rude people.”

“What do people do that’s rude?”

“I look young. Many customers talk to me like…” his voice trailed off as he searched for an English word on his phone. He showed it to me: discrimination.

He explained that he’s in his forties, so customers should use word choice to respect that. But they didn’t. Even after he told them his age.

Korean, like most languages other than English, has formality structures built into the language. Korean sentence structure ends with the verb. The verbs can end with an “eh,” “ayo,” or “imnida” sound. These verb endings are respectively informal, formal, and very formal.

There’s no equivalent in English. But if you know any Spanish, it’s a little like “tú” and “usted.” One is informal and used when you can speak casually. The other is formal for when you need to use language that keeps a respectful distance.  Latin Americans are pretty relaxed about the difference, but it’s very important to Koreans.

I don’t think about formal and informal structures often as an English speaker—an American English speaker on top of that. But it’s a theme that I’m seeing in my conversations with Koreans. In fact, it reminded me of a story that the convenience store owner from the previous post told me.

He once had a female employee that was in her fifties. A male customer, also in his fifties, came in and spoke to her using the informal “eh.” That pissed off the employee, and they got into a shouting match.

When Koreans meet each other socially, one of the first questions they ask is how old everyone is because they need to know what types of words and tense endings to use with each other. This is difficult to explain because Americans and Koreans, as far as I can tell, are at polar opposites of the cultural slider scale with this. I mean, we do respect age differences. But if we were put on a mathematical graph of “age distinction” next to Korea, you could basically round our value down to zero.


The closest English equivalent I can think of would be if you go to a restaurant and say, “Could I have a water, please,” instead of, “Get me a water.” Even then, the later is offensive or charming based on the speaker’s tone. But assuming it’s said in an offensive way, that’s the best comparison I can do for you. One is a regular transaction. The other feels like belittling someone because of their position. And in Korean, that’s just the difference between ending a sentence with “ayo” or “eh.”

Whatever language you speak, just be kind to people. You have no idea how hard they might work and what wild boars on a dark mountain they may have survived.



Pictures : Melissa Beth Rose 
Words : Michael Smit

Conversations in Korea: Mr. K the Convenience Store Owner

I don’t get why people read blogs. I don’t know why you would want to read my thoughts when you have perfectly fine thoughts of your own. Or if you’re going to read someone else’s thoughts, at least make it someone worthwhile. Like Mark Twain.

But you do read my stuff and I’m thankful for that, so I want to make it worth your time. I was thinking about what I would like to read in a blog and I got an idea. You see, blogs are a bit voyeuristic. Like a personal diary you found lying on the ground. Or like people watching at the mall.

I used to do that when I was in high school. I’d sit in the mall and watch people and think “I wonder what a day in his life is like.” I want to know what it’s like to be a taxi driver for a day. I want to know what it’s like to be a Walmart greeter. That’s what I want from a blog, so that’s what I’m going to write.

diary_blog copy

I’m going to start doing little interviews for this blog. No names or pictures. It’s not a biography. It’s a day-in-his-shoes-ography.

I won’t do this for every future post, but often enough.

For the first one, I interviewed the owner of a twenty-four hour convenience store in Korea. We’ll call him Mr. K. I made up that name. “K” because he lives in Korea.

Conversations in Korea: Mr. K the Convenience Store Owner

We had just finished our interview. As we sat watching the first real snowfall of the winter from the coffee shop window, he told me, “You know my part-timer? The young girl who works at my store? She will achieve her dream next month. She will save one hundred thousand dollars.”

“Sorry, a hundred thousand?” I spoke slowly. I was sure he either confused his English numbers or was speaking in Korean Won instead of US dollars. A hundred thousand Korean won is roughly a hundred dollars.

“Yes, a hundred thousand.”

I wrote the number down to make sure nothing was getting lost in translation. “The girl who works part time in your convenience store saved a hundred thousand dollars in seven years? Not won, but dollars. How?”

100000 dollars copy

“Yes. She was in eleventh grade when I hired her. She gave up on going to university. I told her ‘You listen to my advice. Save your money. Do not buy clothes. Do not meet your friends. Just save your money and you can achieve your dream.”

Mr. K owns a convenience store down the road from my apartment. Convenience stores are the lifeblood of Korea. You don’t realize how, well, convenient they are until you move away from here. 7-11. CU. Buy The Way. 365 Plus. No matter where you are in the city, you’re guaranteed to see three of them. One to your left, one to your right, and one straight across the street. Imagine a world with a 7-11 on the corner of every neighborhood. It’s not high quality, but where else can you get milk when it’s two in the morning and you want a bowl of cereal? It’s beautiful.   

Mr. K speaks English very well, so I sat down with him to talk about what it’s like to run one of these convenience stores in Korea. This side story about one of his longest term employees came as a surprise after the interview had finished.

“When she started working here, she made three thousand won (roughly $3 USD, which we’ll use from now on for convenience) an hour and only worked a few hours a week,” he told me. “She saved two thousand dollars after her first year. She showed it to me and we were proud. But then she needed braces and used all her money. The next year she saved three thousand dollars. Then her father needed surgery and she used all her money again. Now she makes six dollars an hour. Another employee quit and she asked for his hours. She works many hours now.”

He continued, “So I said to her, ‘Don’t tell anyone how much you save. Don’t tell friends. Don’t tell family. You just save.’ And she did. She works twelve hours a day, seven days a week,” he told me. “She doesn’t need food, she can eat in the store. She doesn’t need a car, she walks a short time to the store. She doesn’t need to buy new shoes, she’s just in the store all day. She lives with her parents and just saves and saves. She doesn’t even have a cell phone. If her friends want to see her, they must come to the store and see her.” 

But he still refers to her as his “part timer.” I’m not sure what the distinction of being a part timer means out here in Korea.

ConvStoreInkedbw copy

He told me, “She spent no money for the last five years and achieved her dream. In a few months, she will have saved a hundred thousand dollars.”

From the very start, the whole interview went in a different direction than I expected. I wanted to know funny stories about how 24 hour convenience store employees entertained themselves during the slow hours of the night. I wanted to know what they thought about the strange customers who walk in at two in the morning to buy toenail clippers and a bottle of vodka. But I got a different story.

The interview derailed after my very first question. I asked, “Are the night hours slow? What do you do during those hours?”

“Usually my part timers work in those hours.”

“But you never worked through the night hours before?”

He thought for a moment. “I didn’t know anything about convenience stores when I first opened this shop. I was an import/exporter in USA. But my friend owns the building my store is in. He told me to not spend time in USA. He said I should come back to Korea and own a convenience store.”

“The first two days, I had no part timer. I worked all day and night by myself. I thought, ‘I don’t know why I have to do like this.’ Finally I hired a part timer. I walked to the bank and I felt like my legs were, um…” he shook his arms to demonstrate how wobbly his legs were. His legs felt like jello. I believe that’s the phrase he was looking for to describe how he felt after working forty eight hours straight.

He could finally go home at night after hiring someone to work through it. But this created a new problem. He finished work at midnight and started at eight in the morning. And he lived an hour and a half away. “When can I sleep?” he asked me.

After a month of commuting every night, he took a sleeping bag to work and found some cardboard boxes to throw on the ground in the small employee room at the back of the store. He sleeps there through the night–every night, because he works every day. He told me he only goes home two days a year during harvest and spring festivals.

BackRoomSketch copy

Here’s his schedule now. He wakes up at eight, checks his inventory, and orders items he needs. At ten, he has breakfast and then goes to the bank to deposit cash. By noon, he’s finished his business and takes a nap on his box bed for a couple hours. His employee finishes work at four, so he works the cashier until about seven. Another employee starts work at seven, and his store’s inventory delivery arrives around the same time. He finishes inventory by eight and has dinner. After dinner, he takes a rest on his box bed again until about ten. He gets up at ten to receive another delivery. He stocks his store and gets to sleep a little after midnight. Then he wakes up at eight and does it again.

As we walked back to the store after the interview, I didn’t know what to think of this unassuming man in his vest which matches the color of his store’s  logo. He sleeps on a pile of cardboard boxes every night, but he might be doing very well for himself. He told me he lives in Gangnam, which is a lot like the Hollywood of Seoul. Of course, you can find cheap living in Hollywood if you’re willing to bend your standards. But the point is he might be doing very well for himself. I hope he is. He’s a good guy and he deserves it.

The thing is, even if he was doing very well, you’d never know. He would just sleep on his box bed, work seven days a week, never buy new shoes, and save and save and save.

GangnamProviceSketch copy

Pictures: Melissa Beth Rose 
Words: Michael Smit


Contrast and Connections



I come up with the idea for most of my blog posts while laying in bed trying to sleep. Something about the lack of responsibility, the lack of focus, frees my mind to wander and make connections. And writing is all about making connections. So here’s some connecting.

This is an example of something that happens often. I’m teaching a fifth grade class. We finish a reading activity and I check the answers. I toss out a ball. Whoever it lands near answers the question. That person then throws the ball to whoever they want for the next question, and so on.

In Korea, students often stand when they answer. The ball comes to this kid. He stands. I say, “Read the answer for #4, please.” But the kid just stands there doing nothing.

I think to myself, “Not this again, dammit.” He’s not being disrespectful because he’s standing at attention and looking right at me. He’s just doing nothing.

Mouth slightly ajar. Eyes wide. Always those two things.

I ask, “Do you have the answer?” I wait for a while. Nothing. The class doesn’t start to snicker the way they would if this was something strange.

“If you don’t have the answer, it’s okay.” Nothing. He doesn’t try to give an answer, he doesn’t tell me that he didn’t finish, he doesn’t even say something in Korean to my co teacher. He just stands there.

“Is there a problem?” He’s like a UFC fighter curled up in a ball at the end of the round, eating elbows to the head and waiting for the damn bell to ring.

This happens a lot with many different students, and I have no idea what to do about it. I just want to move the class forward, but they won’t respond to my questions, they won’t seek help, they won’t do anything. I thought it only happened when they try to speak English, but recently I’ve seen it happen when my co teacher is speaking Korean.


This started happening more often recently because I’m trying to change the way I teach at my school and the change is not working. I think it’s clashing with how the students are trained to learn. That’s frustrating as a teacher, but fascinating as a writer. I’m conflicted.

I’m trying to change the way I teach because some of the private schools are producing kids that speak English very well, but the public schools are not. I think it’s because of the English curriculum the public schools use.

The chapters in our books are are based on single phrases. Just looking at the sixth grade book now, we have “He has short, curly hair and big, brown eyes,” “I want to be a doctor,” “I want to feed the pigs,” and so on. Every chapter has a page for listening, speaking, reading, writing, and then a review game.

The structure is great. The problem is the execution. “I want to feed the pigs,” is the exact phrase they hear at the start of the chapter in the listening section. In the speaking section they practice scripted conversations that all revolve around “I want to feed the pigs.” And so on, up through the test where they get questions like, “I ____ __ feed the pigs.” They get about four alternatives they can swap out, like “I want to play soccer,” and “I want to eat kimbap.” But they’re still just memorizing phrases instead of learning the building blocks of English.

It would be like a math class that only teaches two plus two equals four. You watch a video where characters are in a situation which shows that two plus two equals four. You do worksheets with different word problems to demonstrate how two plus two equals four. You then take a test where you have to solve for “Y” in the equations “Y+2=4,” “2+Y=4,” and the grand finale, “2+2=Y.”

You’ll never forget what two plus two equals, but you sure as hell can’t do math.

This is why Korean students study English for over a decade in the public school, but can’t speak the language. (Source #1) (Source #2)

Now I’m trying to teach creative use of English with vocab and grammar the kids already know, just like I was trained to do in LA. But it’s not working. Most of them freeze up like I described unless they are absolutely certain of their answer. They aren’t willing to take a chance.

I can only guess at why this happens, so here’s my guess. I see culture as a set of slider scales. Like the kind you have on your phone. Slide the scale between full volume and no volume. Full brightness and no brightness. Except in culture it’s full formality and low formality. Full individualism and low individualism. We’ve all got a bit of everything, but we sit at different places on the scale.

I have no idea if this is accurate. I’ve read zero sources. But I’ve done some travelling and I met a ton of people from a ton of cultures when I was teaching English in LA. I can only say what I see, and so far it matches what I see.


My best guess is that these freeze ups happen because Korea is pretty close to full power on the “mistake stigma” scale. They often have a very clear, right way to do things and there is no room for variation. I talked a lot more about this in a previous post.

The book’s questions are very clearly right or wrong. When I call on a student they are either sure they have it or sure they don’t. No need for hesitation. But the freeze ups are happening more often now because introducing creative language brings a range of color into what was once black or white.

We need perspective to understand anything about culture. So here’s an example from someone at the polar opposite side of the scale.

Back at the language school in LA, I liked to start new classes with “hotseat,” my favorite speaking activity. It’s simple. One person sits in a chair at the front of the room. The “hotseat.” I set a timer for three minutes. When I say go, anyone can ask the person in the hotseat whatever they want. I just tell them to play nice.

Most of my students in LA were about eighteen to twenty-five, and they were from all over the world. This example comes from an elective class for high level students, which means they were mostly European.

I think I can remember the nationalities of everyone in that class. We had a few French speakers from Belgium and France, as well as a Flemish speaker from Belgium. There were three or four German speakers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. We had a two Norwegians. One Czech. Two Japanese. One Vietnamese. One Taiwanese.  One Peruvian and one Venezuelan.

One of the girls from Austria went to the hotseat first. Then a girl from Belgium. Then the lady from Vietnam. This class was almost entirely female. Maybe that’s why I remember it so well.


The activity went smoothly. Questions were clear and answers were satisfactory.

“Where are you from?”


“Do you like it?”


“What’s good about Austria.”

”It’s beautiful. And the people are nice.”

And so on. Typically the first couple questions would come quickly. Then as the three minutes went on, questions would slow down and the person in the hotseat would sit in silence, waiting for someone to raise their hand.

Eventually the girl from Venezuela came to the hotseat. She was from the lowest level homeroom in this elective class. But you wouldn’t have guessed it by watching.

“Do you like Venezuela?”

That was the only question asked. She spoke to us about Venezuela for the entire three minutes. She said she really loves her country. She said every neighborhood becomes like a family. She told us about the time when her neighbor’s little boy got sick and everyone in the community came out to help him. How one family would take care of him while the mom went to work and how another family knew a doctor that could help him and so on. She would stop every so often to see if there were questions, but when she saw there weren’t she would happily go on talking about her country.

When she finished, a few people laughed. They weren’t laughing at her, I don’t think. It was just so obviously different that they couldn’t help laughing.

When she returned to her seat, I said, “That was some culture right there. Did you see it?”

That was not simply a talkative person, I told them. I had been teaching there for long enough and seen hundreds of students from around the world come and go. That wasn’t just a single talkative person, that was culture. That was an entirely different way of having a conversation.

It made me think of all the times I had gotten a new class and scanned the nationalities on my roster to determine what kind of conversations my class would respond to. If it was all European and Asian, there was a good chance I needed more structured conversation activities. But if there were Latin Americans in the class, they would get the ball rolling if I used more open-ended conversation activities. They were good at navigating those shades of color in a conversation that  is not black and white.

I didn’t do this when I first started teaching there. At first I thought, as many Americans do, that every individual is a unique snowflake. As if culture doesn’t even exist. Also when I first started teaching there, I almost lost my job multiple times because so many European students hated my class.

Over time, I learned to change my class’s conversation style to fit the ways different cultures communicate. It was a survival technique. I used it because it worked. Not every time, but often enough.

The early American immigrants came from Europe, and therefore we often think we are more connected to Europe. But I always found conversing with the Latin Americans more comfortable. I knew how to read their social queues and they knew how to read mine. I bet if I were teaching fifth graders in Colombia right now, I would not have students freezing up all the time. If they were uncertain, they would give it a try rather than awkwardly standing in silence.

As I’ve said before, one of the greatest benefits of travel is learning about your own culture by contrasting it with the culture you’re travelling in. There is something distinct about the way Americans talk and interact with each other. And I mean “America” in the big sense here, from the top of Canada down to the tip of Chile. We don’t care for formality and we’d rather look stupid than boring. If we’re not sure of something, we’ll still give it a shot. Who cares. We respect the effort and forgive the outcome.

And this may be a stretch, but I’m feeling fanciful. If all that’s true, then maybe there is a sense in which this is still the land of freedom. Freedom to express yourself in a different way. Freedom to make an attempt, even if it turns out to be wrong.

And if it isn’t true, at least I didn’t freeze up and say nothing at all.


Politically Correct Words Suck

(Author’s note on 6/11/2017: Given the current political climate, I felt it important to clarify something on this post. Political Correctness can mean wildly different things to different people. Some think all things nice are PC and all things bad are not PC. Others think being anti-PC gives them an excuse to spout vile ideas. Neither of these are the real definition of what PC actually is.

For the purpose of this article, I’m talking purely about the original definition of what PC is: changing language to political speech which softens the meaning of our words.)

Words shape thought

That’s a line from the video I’m going to link at the bottom of this post. It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking about how the way we think is influenced by the words we use ever since I got into teaching language.

For example, in conversational Korean, it’s common to use the possessive pronoun “our” in place of “my,” “his,” “her,” and so on. I wouldn’t say, “This is my bike.” I would say “This is our bike.” After knowing that, isn’t it also curious how Korean culture is very communal. Americans are individualistic, but there’s a great sense of “we” in Korea. And why wouldn’t there be if you grew up calling everything “ours.”

Just think of what else the words we use could train our brains to see.

(Illustration credit: Edric Kent)

Here’s why this is relevant for you. Americans are obsessed with being politically correct these days. The intention is to be polite, but the effect is that we are making our language weak.

Remember, words shape thought.

I know I’m not the first one to talk about this. Everyone is talking about it. The nation is dividing into teams about politically correct speech. But I recently changed teams and I did so because I’m a writer, reader, and English language teacher. My world is made of words. While I may not be the first to talk about political correctness, I can explain why it’s a problem.

Politically correct speech is formal language. It pushes to change an individual’s way of speaking, flaws and all, into an orthodox vocabulary that makes people comfortable because it pushes the word further away from its actual meaning. The poor become economically disadvantaged. Civilian casualties become collateral damage

Scroll to page three of this link for more examples from the “Bias-Free Language Guide” which the University of New Hampshire published.

(Update: Note that the president of UNH does not condone nor enforce the Bias-Free Language Guide. Still, it does a damn good job of showing the kind of political correct language that’s starting to run out of control.)

(Illustration credit: Edric Kent)

Formal language isn’t bad. We just have to understand that there’s a time and place for formal language. But there’s also a time and place when it certainly should not be used.

A lot of languages have formal structures built into them. In Spanish, when you talk to a friend you say “tu” but when you talk to an authority you say “usted.” In Korean, when you talk to a friend, you end the verb with “-ayo,” but when you talk to an older person you end the verb with “-imnida.”

English doesn’t have these structures. Instead, we add extra words to make something sound more formal. At a restaurant, you say, “I would like to have a water, please.” But with a friend, you say, “Yo, get me a water.”

You speak formally to authority figures, elders, and strangers. This is the place for formal language. However, the die-hard politically correct crowd is pushing our whole language to become formal by making it vague and wordy.

What about the informal? Where is its place? With friends and family, right? This is what I learned when I studied Spanish and when I learned to teach English. “You speak informally with your loved ones.”

Let’s apply this and see if it checks out. Imagine yourself in this scenario. You’re walking down the street on Saturday afternoon. The sun is out and you’ve got nowhere you gotta be. You’re about to cross paths with a stranger walking in the opposite direction, so you give the passerby a friendly nod. The passerby gives you the finger and a sucker punch. There’s a million things you could say, but for this scenario let’s limit it to two options:

  1. “Pardon me, stranger, but might I inquire into the ulterior intentions which may be behind this action which has just been undertaken by yourself?”
  2. “Hey bozo, what the fuck?”

I bet you’d go with the latter. But wait, isn’t that informal language? Do you love this sucker punching stranger?

You see, we have the wrong idea about formal and informal language. Formal language isn’t a sign of respect, it’s a sign of distance. Informal language isn’t a sign of love, it’s a sign of closeness. Closeness to the actual meaning we want to express. Informal is the real language.

This is a point I make often when I’m teaching English. A lot of intermediate level English speakers want to use big, fancy words and long, complex sentences. It’s impossible to understand. It isn’t wrong, it’s just bland. Vague. Lifeless. I spend a lot of time teaching students to use language that is simple and clear. To use the informal.

They respond, “What if you’re at a job interview? I tell them that every situation has a range of acceptable formality. But whatever the range is, you should strive to speak and write at the lowest number on that range. This is where you find words with power.

I recently tried to make this point with an adult student I’m tutoring here. I showed him this example from the book “On Writing Well,” which is one of two great books in the American writer’s scripture. The author, William Zinsser, gives two examples of language from a memo Franklin Roosevelt sent in WW2. The first is formal and lifeless. The second is informal, simple, and vibrant.

He (Franklin Roosevelt) tried to convert into English his own government’s memos, such as this blackout order of 1942:

Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.

Imagine that you’ve received this is a memo directly from the president. It’s wartime. It requires immediate action; American lives depend on it. But are you even sure of what to do? Don’t mess this up for us all. Are you one hundred percent sure what the memo wants you to do?

Luckily, Zinsser continues to show how Franklin Roosevelt translated this memo:

Tell them,” Roosevelt said, “that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.

Simple. Clear. Informal. This is good language.

Politicians and lawyers speak in drawn out, formal language. This makes us think that smart people speak  with formal language, which is wrong. People speak formally when they are talking with someone they want to keep at a distance. Any other time a person speaks formally, it’s because they’re trying to cover their ass by obscuring their words so much that you can’t pin any responsibility on them.

Just because you use a polite word, it does not mean you’re thinking polite things. Defend language that is descriptive and clear. These words have personality and power.

The modern age of political correctness does not make our society nicer. It only makes it more formal. It puts distance between our words and reality, blurring our vision of what reality is and muting our voice when we want to talk about it. If people say offensive things, we need to focus on making reality a better place, not swapping in formal words to hide reality under the rug.

As we saw, formal language confuses a message about simply covering the windows. This is the language we’re using to end racism, poverty, hunger, global conflicts, and so on? Impossible.

(Illustration credit: Edric Kent)

Before the angry hordes of the internet come storming at my gate, let me be clear. I’m promoting directness. But I’m not promoting insensitivity. Our obsession with politeness started with good intentions, but then got infected with cowards who want to be shielded from the result of their own beliefs.

Where do we draw the line between what’s direct and what’s offensive? Here’s the rule. The best phrase is the most descriptive and accurate. This is how we keep our language honest.

For example, the word “fat” is just descriptive. There’s a reason it’s the word we use among ourselves, away from the public. You know you do. The word is accurate. “Obese” is a medical condition and “over-weight” doesn’t necessarily mean fat. Fat is just fat. There’s only one possible thing it could be and there’s only one possible word to describe it. That’s a good word.

However, a friend recently asked me why “Eskimo” is considered offensive. That’s because it’s not accurate. “Eskimo,” like so many names we use today for Native tribes, is the word their enemy tribes called them. “Inuit” is the word the people call themselves. “Inuit” is more accurate, and therefore is the better word.

Does that mean if the manager of my local pizza shop says the word “Eskimo” in a conversation, we should protest until he resigns? Hell no. He has the right to be ignorant about some things. It does not make him racist against Inuit people just because he used a word. But even if he did hate Inuit people, I don’t need my pizza guy to agree with everything I believe. I need him to make good pizza.

These obsessive social justice warriors flying their banners of aggressive political correctness are moving us towards a society where people are scared to express opinions which step outside of the popular mood.

For decades, science fiction has warned us about the dangers of government removing our free speech through censorship. But they missed it. These days, we censor ourselves.

(Illustration credit: Edric Kent)

I had an activity I did with advanced English classes to drive this point home. I’d have them write famous quotes on one side of the board. Then we’d use the other side to suck the life out of the quotes by using the reverse of all the good language rules we’d learned.

For example, one class took “I have a dream,” and changed it to “A subliminally unconscious experience has been participated in during the night by me.” One moves the audience to dream with you. The other moves the audience to sleep.

Listen: words shape thought, so use them well.