Using Big Words in Your Writing Is Not Impressing Anybody

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Trying to predict what other people think of you is an exhausting business, isn’t it? The smartest among us give it up entirely, while the rest of us frantically read things like this Fast Company article, which says that people who use unnecessarily complicated language in their writing are perceived as less competent and confident than those who used simpler language. 

In one experiment, the researchers — including Daniel M. Oppenheimer, of the UCLA Anderson School of Management — took real college admission essays and replaced some of the simpler words used in them with more complicated ones. They then gave these to their study participants, to read and rate the competency and confidence level of the authors. As it turned out, the authors of the essays with complicated language were rated lower than the authors of the essays with simpler language. 

Okay, but maybe that’s because swapping in big words for smaller ones with no real reason to do so made the papers sound ridiculous, like that episode of Friends where poor Joey “Baby Kangaroo” Tribbiani is tasked with writing a letter of recommendation for Chandler and Monica’s adoption application. (“They’re humid, prepossessing Homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.”) To address that, the researchers tried the opposite of the first experiment, taking abstracts for sociology dissertations and exchanging the big words for smaller ones. The findings held up: The study volunteers again rated the authors of the abstracts with simpler language as more competent and more confident.

Obviously, there are times when you need the perfect word to hit the necessary nuances; at the same time, there’s really never a good reason to write utilize instead of use. And the other point here, as Oppenheimer tells Fast Company, is this: “So often, our intuitions about what will impress others are wrong.” How very true that is.

Using Big Words Is Not Impressing Anybody