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Is That Literally True?

You may be making this communication mistake. Here's how to fix it.

One of the dictionary definitions of the word “literally” is figuratively. The words we use can have vastly different significance—even sometimes literally the exact opposite meanings—to different people. That’s a recipe for misunderstanding and worse. So the next time you’re struggling to be understood in a conversation, ask yourself this: Is what you’re saying correct, or are you exaggerating to make a point? If the latter, are you sure people will know that?

Scan opinion pieces on any topic and you’ll frequently come across statements like these:

  • History is full of brutality and cruelty because a small minority of people with personality disorders “has always held power and managed to order or influence the majority to commit atrocities on their behalf.”
  • Research will never be free of personal biases or reflect universal truths. And to think there are universal truths perpetuates a particular kind of able-bodied white cisgender male logic…”

What do these statements have in common? While being on totally different topics, they’re united in being unclear. Are they meant to be taken literally (as in exactly what is written), or literally (as in figuratively)?

For the first statement: Has a small cruel minority always—meaning in all places and at all times across history—held power and convinced the majority to commit atrocities, or is the argument something much more limited: that this is the case in a few specific places at a few specific times (so definitely not always)?

I expect it’s the latter because what about the overwhelming majority of places where at any given moment no atrocities are being committed? And does data really exist from every leader in every country and throughout history to demonstrate which leaders did or did not exhibit personality disorders? (If so, it would be fascinating to see that data cited.)

For the second statement: Is belief in universal truths actually nothing more than a problematic type of able-bodied white cisgender male logic? (If so, then we can’t even say that racist theories like eugenics are universally false, or that it’s universally true that the earth is round and not flat, because we’ve rejected universal truth as biased and problematic.) Or is the author really trying to say that often truths are claimed to be universal when evidence is insufficient or doesn’t acknowledge identity-based biases?

While making sweeping grand statements we tend to actually be thinking of particular incidents and examples. In other words, we usually have something in mind other than what we’re saying.

It may sound like I’m nitpicking about wording here but this issue matters in your life because muddled communication fuels all sorts of bitter conflicts. It’s extremely easy to fall into this trap, so it’s something to watch out for.

The next time you feel like saying something is “literally the most [fill in the blank],” you could instead try saying what you actually have in mind. Why not speak about your feelings and what you’ve observed? Why not state only what you know to be true rather than expecting your listener to know how much of what you say to take seriously and how much to ignore as just figurative exaggeration?

The statements you make will be more meaningful and probably more interesting. And they’ll be much less likely to start a confused argument, because you’ll be speaking for yourself and your own experiences. (More about communication skills in difficult conversations here.)

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