Beware of Universals

One of the most important ways we communicate is with language. However, if our language is fuzzy, our communications will be too. And when communications are fuzzy, misunderstandings abound.

If you want to communicate effectively, you’ll also want to make your language as effective and clear as it can be. One way to do this is to be very careful about using words known as “universals” or “absolutes” – words like “always,” “never,” “all” and “every.”

Now, universals are fine, when they’re true. If you say, “Everyone must die someday,” or “All the people in our family have brown eyes,” you are talking about facts. But what about when you see an old person struggling with a walker and you say, “Gosh, it’s awful to be old!” Or you read about an elected official who’s been convicted of fraud and you say, “Politicians are all crooked.” In both cases, you have moved from a specific truth to a general untruth. You have generalized from particulars, and in so doing you distort a fact that is true, into an opinion that isn’t.

So, the next time you hear a universal term, ask yourself, “Is this a fact or an opinion or a generalization?” Watch and listen closely to those running for office, especially when they talk about their opponents or the state of affairs. Are they stating facts or a cleverly worded opinion?

The same goes for news outlets or anyone attempting to grab the spotlight. It is vital that all of us sharpen our critical listening skills.

Listen for the words “all,” “every,” “always,” “never,” and “none,” and let them serve as red flags for you. Ask yourself, “Is this strictly true? Are there exceptions?” If you avoid these universals except when they are really true, you will dramatically improve your communications, as well as create a better sense of trust in you by those who listen to you.