My local paper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Massachusetts, ran an AP story about the foundering Mitt Romney campaign under the headline,”Slipping in polls, Romney tries to seem caring.” (The link may not work if you’re not a subscriber, but here’s a link to the same story with a slightly different headline, on the AP website.)
Two things I’d like to explore about this, and not what you think. I’m really not going to discuss the content of Mitt Romney’s campaign at the moment, though I could certainly “take him to the woodshed” about a lot of his messaging (I might do that next time). Today, I want to look at the linguistics of this headline: specifically, the use of “tries” and ”seems.” I’ll use comedian Stephen Colbert’s framework of “truthiness” as a lens.
Trying is different from doing. It’s one of those words I’m working hard (notice I didn’t say “trying”) to excise from my vocabulary, and from the materials I create for my marketing clients. Trying, rather than doing, predisposes toward failure: “well, I tried.”
Language influences us in ways we’re only just starting to imagine. If your language includes a dozen words for cooperative problem solving, but none for war, how does that shape foreign policy?
In Spanish, there are two distinct verbs that translate into English as “to be”/”is”: Ser (to be in a permanent state) and estar (to be in a temporary condition or location). If you’re describing a permanent condition, you use ser. Examples: “I am a mother” or “I am a father” or “the mountain exists.” Gender takes ser, because until recent decades, that was seen as permanent.
Estar is for conditions that could change: “I feel tired” [right now]; “I am at the cafe”; “the food is on the table”; “she’s pregnant.”
Oddly enough, your profession, even though it could change, takes ser: “soy escritor”—”I am a writer.” What does it say about the class ladder of a society that sees a job title as permanent?
In English, we don’t have the ser/estar distinction. Thus, I chose to write above, “I feel tired” because I don’t want to ascribe permanence to that kind of negative thought—even as an example in a blog post and not as a statement of reality—by using “I am.”
So, that the writer perceives that Romney is only trying, and not accomplishing, is very telling.
And then there’s the other trigger word in that headline, “seems.” Which brings us to Stephen Colbert’s elegant concept of “truthiness”—stating something that you wish were true as if it’s fact (something many senior George W. Bush administration officials as well as quite a few pundits—especially but not always on Fox News).
Romney’s attempt to “seem caring” is a great example of truthiness; the real Romney, behind closed doors, wrote off 47 percent of the American public.
Of course, in fairness, it wasn’t the Romney campaign that said he’s trying to seem caring; it wasn’t even the Associated Press, whose headline was ”Slipping in polls, Romney assures voters ‘I care.’” The “tries” was inserted by a headline writer at the Gazette. But I think that person actually nailed a few central problems with the Romney campaign. He appears incredibly clueless in his interactions with ordinary people…he can’t decide where he stands on many issues, or on his past accomplishments…and these two together combine to present an image and aura of inauthenticity. Someone who “seems” to go for “truthiness,” rather than a man willing to stand on the facts of his record or his positions.
(For more on the life choices that stem from your word choices, I strongly recommend this interview with Donna Fisher, which is available without charge through the end of the week, and then will go behind a firewall. I have no affiliation with Donna or that teleseminar series—but I have listened to it four times, and it’s very rare that I listen to a call more than once. The relevant section starts about 13 minutes in.)