Why We Talk

Not about the facts

You couldn’t describe your best friend’s face to a stranger, even if your life depended on it.

No matter how much detail you provide – the tone of their skin, the shape of their nose, the birthmark near their eye – that stranger would never see what you see.

The more visual detail you give to the stranger, the less accurately they will see your friend.

That is because the role of language is to convey emotional fidelity, not sensory.

Consider the difference between:

“He had pallid skin and long, drooping cheeks. His temples and eyebrows were flecked with gray. Wrinkles carved the space around his eyes. His chin was round and had a slight scar on the left side. There was a mole near his right eye. His ears were rather long, perhaps four inches from top to bottom, and hugged the side of his head. His hair was still dark brown, though it thinned considerably at the top. Wet gel held the remaining strands in place.”


“He had the face of a long marriage, and a longer divorce. He looked down at his shoes all night.”

Or consider:

“She had brown hair, brown eyes, a small nose, and low bangs. Her lips were thin and pale, save for a bright red mark in the corner of her bottom lip. Her chin was sharp and dimpled forward. She had a flurry of freckles around her nose. Her cheeks were bony and flushed pink with the slightest bit of exertion, so she caked them in mauve makeup.”


“She bit her lip, same blood-red corner as always. What was she doing at a night club? Her face didn’t even stand out at the dentist’s office.”

Emotion, emotion, emotion. Whether writing a novel or chatting with your friends, presenting to your coworkers or addressing a national television audience, remember that language is not about the facts, its about how the facts make us feel.

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