How to gain or lose readers: Use shibboleths

A shibboleth is a word or phrase whose use or pronunciation shows you belong to a certain group or class.  For example, if you sprinkle your writing with OMG, you identify yourself as a texter—perhaps young, perhaps a user of Twitter.  Or if you sprinkle quotes from Shakespeare when you speak, you announce yourself as an English major.

The problem is, not everyone belongs to those groups.  And those who don’t belong can become turned off by your shibboleths just as those who do belong feel drawn to you.

  • Would you know what was going on if a character in a novel says, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” after spilling coffee on a client’s suit? What does that tell you about that character?  (She studied Latin?  She is an older Catholic who remembers those words from the Latin mass?)
  • Or what if you’re reading a mystery and the detective asks himself, “Now what would Philip Marlowe do?”  Would you know who Philip Marlowe is?   (He a fictional character master detective.)
  • If someone pronounces “suite” as “sweet,” what does that tell you? What if he pronounces “suite” as “suit”?  (“Sweet” is a northern US pronunciation; “suit” is a southern and Midwestern pronunciation.)

If you are writing for an audience with similar backgrounds (same culture, same education, same age), you can use shibboleths confidently, knowing your readers will appreciate your clever use of insider terms.  Using shibboleths identifies you as one of them, as someone they can trust.

But if you are writing for an internet audience (various cultures, often English as a second language), you will distance readers who don’t get your insider meanings.  Your readers will feel like people who don’t get the joke.  They may stop reading or continue grudgingly.

Know your audience.  And know your purpose in writing.  Both will inform you about whether you should use shibboleths.

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