Connotative vs Denotative Word Meanings
Every word has one or several denotative meanings. These are the definitions of the word that appear in dictionaries. They are the direct, explicit meanings that are accepted by the speech authorities.
But a very real barrier to effective communication is the basic fact words also have connotative meanings. Connotative meanings are the feelings that we associate with words. They are derived through an individual’s life’s experiences and can be different for each person receiving your message. In communication, when experiences differ, the message sent and message received may be garbled with connotation.
Since tomorrow is Fat Tuesday, let’s use Mardi Gras for an example. When I say those two words, MARDI GRAS, what reaction do you feel deep in your gut? Is it positive? Is it negative? As a communicator, I need to know.
There are revelers and tourists who get an adrenaline rush when they think about the lights, the music, the parades, the beads – everything that pulls them into the stereotypical view of New Orleans on Fat Tuesday. They can be in any other city in America that has started having Mardi Gras activities, but their positive reaction to the words may well stem from their presumed vision of Fat Tuesday in New Orleans
Then there are the merchants and vendors in the French Quarter, and other towns where the celebrations are catching on, who feel an overwhelming thrill as they envision the business and income generated. MARDI GRAS season brings tourists from around the world to the hotels and restaurants around the city, and to the musicians and jazz bars on Bourbon Street. The owners’ and street musicians’ the feeling of Fat Tuesday may be the same as the feeling of fat bank accounts.
And there are those who cringe at the thought of overwhelming sin, wickedness and debauchery. If those feelings are strong enough, the mere mention of the words MARDI GRAS could close their mental door. Listening stops; communication stops.
And of course, there are those who are totally neutral, who have never thought about MARDI GRAS one way or another. These possibly are the only people who put no derived meaning from the words. Perhaps these are the only ones who relate the denotative meaning to the phrase.
Make Some Assumptions
Word connotations can get a public speaker in trouble without the speaker ever understanding why. He cannot consider every possible experience each member of the audience. But while preparing the communication, the speaker should spend some time analyzing who will be on the receiving end of the message he wants to convey. But there are a number of assumptions that the speaker must make about the audience and their collective, shared experiences. If speaking to the Chamber of Commerce in Baton Rouge, what experience will pervade if you say “MARDI GRAS” ? Would you get the same reaction if your presentation is to a women’s church group in Wichita, what will be the assumed dominate perception? If your audience is a classroom of seniors at a Milwaukee high school, what can you suppose about their connotation?
The only message that counts is the one that is understood by your listeners.
You can’t predict how everyone in the audience will feel about the words you use. But you do have to consider them as a general group. If you hit a trigger word in your introduction that alienates the majority of the group, and you usually can tell, you better have prepared some story or jokes to bring them back to your side. Otherwise you’ve lost them you may as well move on to your closing remarks.
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