Everyone who knows me or reads my personal blog knows that I am a fanatic for “The Sopranos.” (And yes, I’m still mourning the series and hoping that David Chase really does have a movie planned.) Nearly all of the characters used extremely rough and vulgar language from time to time, depending upon the plot point being advanced. At first, it was rather shocking. But, over time, as I came to know and understand the characters, I barely noticed it unless I heard a word or phrase with which I was not familiar.
I did not find the language or violence upsetting because, after all, the show was about mobsters. Not being acquainted with any real-life Mafioso (that I know of), I presume that Chase’s depiction of the characters was fairly accurate. Who could buy Tony Soprano, for instance, upon finding out that one of his Captains, Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero was serving as a confidential FBI informant, yelling, “Shucks! Darn! Drat! Let’s get even with that awful guy!”
However, blogs and websites are not mob dramas and, from my perspective, specific rules apply.
On July 2, 2007, Finn wrote :
I love words. Not surprising, I’m sure. To me, every word has it’s own feeling, it’s own personality. There are some words that I find to be absolutely perfect—meaning that something about them indicates exactly what the word means. Sometimes it’s the way a word sounds, sometimes it’s the way the way it feels when you say it.
. . .
[Specific profanity] — I declined to write this one out as not to offend, but it is such a perfect word that I couldn’t leave it out. It shoots straight out of the mouth and then hits the wall with a smack. So indicative of its meaning — the sounds, the feel. There’s no mistaking this word. A bit of trivia: There is no foreign form of this word. There are words or phrases that capture the spirit, but there is no direct translation. And yet it seems universally understood. Again, a perfect word.
One of the most important rules that every writer must observe is this: Know your audience! That includes assessing who will be reading your words, the medium in which they will do so, and what their reaction will be if you opt to use, for lack of a better term, “colorful” prose.
Although vulgar language may seem “perfect” when the rating system is focused upon shock value, expressiveness, and communication of a specific idea, when writing for a mass web audience, my practice is to scrupulously and uniformly avoid using such words.
First, I believe that a skilled writer should be capable of communicating without such language. An ability to do so connotes limitations that should be addressed via writing courses or seminars. In the vast majority of circumstances, vulgarity and profanity simply aren’t required in order for even a marginally competent writer to convey thoughts, ideas, opinions, or feelings to a broad audience.
You cannot predict who will happen upon a blog or website, nor can you be assured that visitors to your site will not find questionable language offensive or repulsive. It is far better to err on the side of caution than risk giving your readers the type of experience I had yesterday morning.
Bleary-eyed, I signed onto Bloglines to read the latest articles from the sites to which I subscribe before heading out to the gym for water aerobics. As I scanned the headlines, deciding which articles to read in full, my eyes popped open when the most offensive word in the English language screamed at me after the words “Don’t be a . . .” Sure that, in my just-awakened state, I had misread the post title, I clicked on the link to confirm. During the time interval between the headline being syndicated to the feed and my visiting the site, the author had removed the repugnant word from the title. However, it remains part of the post’s perma-link.
Many comments had already been posted from readers, many of whom expressed shock and disappointment. For instance, one stated: “I think your title is in bad taste! I think you could have found a much better word to use. I have always been a fan of yours but am very disappointed in your choice of words (not that you care).” Another female reader noted that she found the gender-based epithet in question “disrespectful to your readers in general and your female audience in particular.”
Problogger Darren Rouse observed:
Have to say that I think your headline is in poor taste. In fact I suspect you’ll find that due to the word you used you’ve probably alienated quite a few readers and possibly stopped people from reading a post that could have engaged people in a worthwhile conversation.
I guess if you’re interested in getting links by polarizing people then it’s probably something you’ll see results from – but if you’re wanting to connect with and build community and engagement then you could well have lost some loyal readers with this one.
My personal response – my respect for you took a hit on this one.
Which brings me to the next consideration: The author, Rouse, and a few other folks argued that the particular term is used quite commonly in some parts of Europe and, apparently, Australia. Thus, the author seemed genuinely shocked by the reaction from American readers in general and, more particularly, women. Just as feigned ignorance of the speed limit is no excuse when a police officer cites you for speeding, a smart writer will consider regional and national variances in language usage and impact. Although the author apparently does not reside in the United States, he should have familiarized himself with his site’s traffic patterns and considered cultural variances. When in doubt, the conservative choice, as this example proves, is always the correct one.
My mother taught me to choose friends wisely by reciting a cliched truism: “Others judge you by the company you keep.” Writers are always judged by the words they choose.
Finn was right about the power of the vulgarity she discussed. Gender-specific monikers and profanity are powerful and evoke a strong emotional, even visceral, response from readers. Restraint is required to ensure that such terms are only used under limited, appropriate circumstances. When used indiscriminately, carelessly or with an unappreciative audience, a writer runs the risk of losing credibility and the respect of his/her readers.
In the case of the post referenced above, I posted a comment advising the blog owner that I had unsubscribed and will not be visiting that site in the future.
Last week, we had a great discussion about comment moderation. I do not moderate comments because I welcome vigorous, respectful debate and encourage my readers to express opinions, and share their ideas and experiences. However, my comment policy is unequivocal: “Profanity, vulgarity and/or hate speech are not allowed.” And I do not use such verbiage in my writing.
How do you feel about the use of strong language on blogs or websites? Do you use it in your own writing? How do you react if you encounter it on another site?