Making what difference?

"Make a difference" heads my list of vacuous popular phrases.  I pick on it because it is a conspicuously empty sound bite that serves no real purpose and tends to dull minds.  A big difference — read: improvement — in saying anything worth saying could well begin when people say what they mean.  The phrase "make a difference" without indicating what the difference is supports a fog of assumptions that may or may not prevail in the audience.  As used, "make a difference" is barely more than a verbal pat on the back.

Empty language was once characterized by my older brother as "a form of speech, apparently English, which can be invariably interpreted as meaning and/or not meaning more and/or less than, rather than what, it seems to mean."  Although he was referring to typical bureaucratic lingo, it applies as well to the speech of politicians and, let me add, those who in a public setting open their mouths and say nothing, while appearing to say something.

"Make a difference" without saying from what to what is a phrase serving an assumed consensus that may or may not actually exist.  In any case, it is weak in function except perhaps to obfuscate.  "Change," a word often used this way, is another example of such virtual language abuse.  Who cares that such empty language may abet an agenda?

But even if the phrase "make a difference," without adding what difference to the statement, is never used to deceive (doubtful), its dependence on assumption weakens its utility in whatever context in which it is used.

Used idiomatically to indicate some  improvement in some whatever, "make a difference" (without explanation) shows a disregard for the value of words.  It also provides loopholes for political strategists, not good policy.

For those who may still not get what I'm driving at, let me explain by pointing out that

  • The things you say can make a difference between getting hired for a job and getting fired from a job.
  • Stepping on ice without caution or knowing how to fall can make a difference between going to work and going to the E.R.
  • Spilling your drink on a computer keypad can make a difference between passing and failing a course.
  • Forgetting the car key inside the car could make a difference between getting to your appointment and not.
  • A bolt of lightning makes a difference in whatever it strikes.
  • A mudslide can make a difference between having a house and losing it.
  • Pulling the trigger of a gun can make a difference between life and death.

The need to pass data from mind to mind in an open platform, or in public, is not well served by incomplete thoughts, platitudes, or coded language, all of which invite misinterpretation, confusion, and error.  This is nothing new, but it is regularly forgotten.  One need not be a geek or editor to see that making oneself clear is preferable to mouthing empty words.  Such abuse of language rises to an art when practiced by politicians for bending minds and gaining votes.

Why advance laziness of speech (and mind) by saying "make a difference" without coupling it to its intended subject?  Is it better to say "I want to make a difference" than to say "I want to assist my elderly neighbors"?  Is it better to say "I want to make a difference" than to say "I want to serve on a volunteer team of rescue workers"?  Is it better to say "I want to make a difference" than to say "I can help that student with a math problem"?  Is it better to say "I want to make a difference" than to say... (fill in the target for improvement).  Just a few more words here make a big difference in the clarity and in the value of communication.

It may not be easy to, as C.S. Lewis advised, "always try to use ... language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn't mean anything else," but it is well worth the effort.

Speaking clearly as well as truthfully makes a difference in understanding one another, without which social progress can become a game instead of a goal. 

Photo credit: madhan r.

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