"You don't have to talk like the kids:" A conversation with Gretchen McCulloch and Kieran Snyder about the linguistics of the internet

Earlier this fall, at the downtown offices of augmented writing platform Textio, I facilitated a discussion between internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch and Textio CEO Kieran Snyder, who holds a PhD in Linguistics and Cognitive Science from the University of Pennsylvania. (Full disclosure: Seattle Review of Books co-founder Martin McClellan is a Textio employee.) The event, to celebrate McCulloch's delightful new bestselling book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, turned into a lively conversation about workplace language, irony, and what it means to navigate the strata of internet language history. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Gretchen, I was surprised by how many internet fads and trends I had forgotten, reading your book.

Kieran Snyder: Same.

Like "doge" — is that how you pronounce that one? Anyway, it seems like a lot of what you're writing about in this book is the relation of irony to language, and how irony gets closer to and further away from language.

So I don't know if you've seen this, but there are Facebook groups where young people join and pretend to be old people — where they'll be writing like old people. There'll be a post, like, "I LOVE JESUS" and then somebody in the comments is like, "MY SON TIMMY DIED LAST NIGHT IN A CAR ACCIDENT IT WAS TERRIBLE."

Looking at this Facebook group, I think of how young women are now wearing my mom's pants. Are young people going to be writing earnestly like old people on the internet sometime soon?

Gretchen McCulloch: That's a great question. I'm very delighted that this is the first question.

So, to take it slightly more seriously, when I was writing the section of Because Internet that was about irony, I ended up thinking what I really need to do was actually see if there's some irony literature. Because surely someone has written a literature on irony.

Turns out, yes. There is a literature on irony. It's great. And there are a couple of things that the irony literature points out. One is that irony is inherently difficult, and it's difficult even in speech. So irony has a couple of steps. One of those is the communication of irony and the second is the acknowledgement by the receiver that the irony has been received. And sometimes they receive it by continuing the irony, and sometimes they receive it by laughing, and sometimes they receive it by acknowledging this sort of thing. It was interesting to me to see that the second step was very much there.

And the second thing that was interesting is that the fundamental principle of irony, or characteristic of irony, is saying something that's not true in a way that makes it clear that you don't actually think that it's true. That introduces this layer of doubt in the receiver.

So if you say, "What a lovely day" when there's a hurricane outside, saying something that's the opposite of what's intended, sometimes the context is sufficient. But sometimes you need some additional thing to introduce this doubt. And that's where I think talking like an older person or using outdated slang or even bringing back things like the tilde, asterisks, that sort of sparkle punctuation, comes in. Then it gets brought back in the way that choker necklaces get brought back — like, "I'm doing this because people did it."

So anything that introduces this note of cognitive dissonance because it's a deviation from expectations — whether that's talking like somebody of a different generation than you, or talking in a slang that was actually cool 20 years ago but is no longer cool — anything that introduces that dissonant note is what enables the receiver to understand that there may be an attempt at irony going on here.

What you're looking for is a way of hinting that there's irony going on, and adopting outdated slang is one way of doing that because if it's actually coming from someone who's a member of that group, then it's not a hint. But if it's coming from somebody who I know is 18 then I'm thinking, okay, there's something else going on here. What is that additional thing?

That's what enables the irony computation to happen. Irony happens with a computation step: like, "here's a note of dissonance. Here's why there's something else going on."

One of the things that I think is super interesting about having the two of you on the stage that you are peers and you come from similar backgrounds. But I think that Textio is interested in, I'll call it formal language, it's more like professional language. And your book deals with very informal language.

I was wondering if you could both talk about inclusivity in language and how you see that changing. It does seem like language, both professional language and formal and informal language, is getting more inclusive in our articles and our gender-neutral language, for instance. Are we moving in a more inclusive direction in both spheres?

KS: I don't think that we are, I'll say it.

I actually like "professional language" more than "formal language" as a label. Because I think every dialect that we use is intended at some level, whether it's consciously or not. And it's often to communicate who belongs in our speech community, right?

Simple example: we think that professional language is by design culturally neutral, right? That's an idea that people who have not thought a lot about language probably believe, is that they come to work and they leave culture at the door and it's a neutral thing.

But you only need to look at how people respond to it to see that that's not true. Right? When you use corporate jargon — words like "stakeholders" or "synergy" or "KPIs" in how you're communicating at work, it turns out that people of color tend to opt out of engagement. Right? When somebody is speaking them, that that's not their design intentionally. But those words grew up in a predominantly white corporate culture and they developed cultural significance. And so I think even in this ostensibly, culturally neutral register of language, often we're communicating in-group and out-group stuff.

Formality and informality, I think, is really interesting. Formal language often wins the battle, but I think informal language typically wins the war. Right?

So at school, we are all taught, to greater or lesser degrees depending on the conservatism of the person you're asking, grammatical rules and compliance and where to put the commas and when you use a semicolon. And people as adults get really self-conscious about whether they comply with the rules that are expected.

I'm a descriptivist linguist, and I still say to my kids, "no, it's not me and Elsa. It's Elsa, and I." I still find those things that my parents said to me coming out. So we absorb that. However, any meaningful look at language change, identifies quickly that real language change comes from communities that are often relative to the mainstream out-group communities. They come from not socioeconomically privileged groups; they come from young people who are trying to find the cultural footing. They tend to come from girls and women more than from boys and men.

So informality is the thing that starts out as out-group and it becomes the way we're all talking 20 years later. We speak English the way we do right now because about a thousand years ago a bunch of people living on an island learned old Norse wrong, so ultimately the out-group tends to win.

I think formal or professional language is as culturally coded. That's why I think software is a helpful solution in the problem, because it interrupts your bias while you're communicating. But in the end informality wins and becomes the new formality.

GM: Yeah, I think that's a really interesting question. What I'd like to see, and I don't know the extent to which this is true or the extent to which I can try to make it true by saying that it's true, is a greater recognition that you can have multiple varieties and that's okay. When I'm saying "younger people are doing this, older people are doing this," People say, "well I'm an older person, that means I must be doing it wrong. I should be changing because I'm not cool like the kids."

You don't have to talk like the kids.

KS: And if you do, you're usually not that cool. As my kids tell me all the time.

GM: I'm already getting less cool. You don't have to talk like the kids. And pointing out that multiple versions can exist doesn't mean that one of them has to be correct, one of them has to be right. You can have multiple ways of doing things and all of them can coexist and people are generally fairly good at understanding each other. I'd like us to be better at understanding each other across different varieties of English and across different ways of speaking.

I don't think that means you have to give up the way you want to talk personally so much as it means you need to understand the context that other people are coming from and to be able to hopefully interpret them and understand them as well. So what I'd like to see is a more pluricentric view of English that doesn't say there's only one way of talking. It says here's a bunch of ways — they're all fine. My English is okay. Your English is okay.

The thing that I think is is challenging about the prescriptive goal in English and one of the things that I think is really cool about Textio, actually, is that the kind of prescriptive English-teacher way of addressing the language assumes that everyone has the same goals when it comes to language.

And as soon as your goals are to impress the dead people — literally they're dead, why do you care about impressing them? They're not there to be impressed. Why do we want you to impress a bunch of 18th century grammarians? They're not here. And this assumes that any deviation from those goals is somehow a problem.

I don't think it's incorrect to evaluate writing and say, okay, this writing did a better job and this writing didn't. We need to be explicit about what our goals are for an individual piece of writing, and in many cases, impressing dead people is not that goal.

I mean, maybe you want to write a Jane Austen pastiche that is indistinguishable from Jane Austen herself, in which case maybe that is your goal. But for many of us, our goals are actually to connect with living people. And our goals are actually maybe to sound artistically beautiful, maybe to sound like we're a member of a particular community, maybe to sound like we care about other people.

So we ask ourselves, "does my language meet these goals? Am I accidentally insulting people because I'm using this word that's actually a slur and I didn't realizing it?" Accidentally insulting people is not generally most people's goals. You either want to deliberately insult them or not insult them at all.

So if we think about what are the possible ranges of goals that different bits of language can have, and how well a particular bit of language is accomplishing its particular goals that it's set — not someone's idea of what everyone's goal should be all the time, but what my goals are right now — so in this case saying, "okay, if our hiring goals are actually to hire a broad range of people, are we actually attracting them?"

I think being explicit about those goals and also accepting that other people may have different goals and their goals can also be legitimate is a way of developing a more pluricentric view of English.

Is the Venn diagram, the overlap getting bigger between professional writing and informal writing? I think of tools like Slack, which I think they bring a sort of informality into the workplace in terms of communication in a way that wasn't there before.

GM: I think it's partly that in the whole internet domain, a lot of styles that were not historically written down are now getting written down. How people talked in the hallway at our workplace was never the same as how they wrote in their memos. Right? But that hallway conversation sometimes moves to Slack or moves to email. And that was always a more informal genre than, "here I am chairing this meeting."

And so we're not used to thinking of writing as having so many different genres, even though speaking has had this many different genres for a long time. And so the the hallway banter or the casual chat you have before the meeting starts are styles. Those haven't been written down as much. And now people are writing them in email or writing them in Slack and say, "why am I using so many exclamation marks? I just keep putting exclamation marks. What are they doing there for?" Well, it's because this isn't a memo, this isn't a chairing a meeting. This is the casual chat in the hallway where maybe you're smiling at somebody.

KS: I also think there's almost a "what are the young people doing" attitude that people who've been in the workforce for a while have as a response to their perceived "millennials are bringing all kinds of crazy informal rules to the workplace. And that's not how it was in my day." It actually was how it was in your day — you were just the young person then. And you were the one bringing change that alarmed and scandalized people who had been in the workplace 20 or 30 years before you.

I think the internet has accelerated it because as Gretchen pointed out, before any of us had computers at work, long ago before any of us were at work, probably, everything that was written was written in a very different way. And it was probably pretty formal because if you didn't have a computer to write on — like my mom was a writer and she used a typewriter — and it was expensive to make mistakes.

So you were pretty serious about getting it formal and perfect because if you didn't, it was like a world of Wite-Out for you. It wasn't backspace and edit and change. And then we get computers and the ability to take risks changes because I can backspace and edit and change. And then we get the internet. Have any of you, maybe it's only me, ever pressed send on something and then regretted it five seconds later?

[Most of the crowd raises their hands.]

Right. I'm better at it than I was 10 years ago. I'm better than I was 20 years ago when I first had regular email access. But the fact of the internet accelerates and pulls in stuff that we would have only said before. Now we write. And we can write with a much higher degree of casualness and apparently lower risk because we can follow up right away or we can backspace or we can change it.

GM: I think it's also the bits that we preserve as well. Because a lot of the informal genre of workplace communications in writing before the internet era is on sticky notes, and telephone pads. And some of these small notes that were never really intended to be preserved and got thrown out or didn't get added to someone's collective archives. So these sorts of informal genres happened, but when they're hand-written, somehow it doesn't seem as grave as when you've typed them. When you've typed them, you expect a certain type of thing. If you think about the genre of informal email versus an informal note you leave on your coworker's desk, they're often very similar.

This is not that dissimilar from what goes in an email, these sorts of notes. So I think also it's a shift in expectations or a shift in how preservable you think something is. Whereas an email can get printed out and used as evidence against you when your company gets sued or something — not this is going to happen — but the email can take on this additional gravitas that the sort of sticky note genre never pretended to have.

Gretchen, I wanted to ask you one thing. You have this amazing sort of super-positive attitude to the language on the internet and I really enjoyed that. I do want to ask, though, is there anything that really bugs you about language? Is there any type of internet writing that annoys you?

GM: You know, my life has gotten so much better since I decided not to get annoyed about language. You don't have to get annoyed about language. There's no moral obligation to being annoyed about stuff. Everything that somebody says they say for a reason. They say because it meets a need for them, or even if they're rushed or something, that's a reason.

I think of it as approaching other people from a place of curiosity rather than judgment. I'm not here to say "this is somebody doing something wrong." Honestly, I sound like a fool if I talk like a teenager, but that doesn't mean the teenagers are wrong. That means that we're just of different generations and it's fine. So I reject the premise of the question.