Educate March 2019

What do you Mean by That? Exactly

Written By: Philip N. Kabler

Words have meaning. (Which could be this entire article…but that would be no fun.) They can be used in a nearly limitless variety of languages, contexts, intentions, tones – and interpretations. And there is the rub. If words can be interpreted, they can likewise be misinterpreted. Which, of course, is a liability risk.

This phenomenon can certainly arise in intergenerational communications with the evolution of popular idioms and slang. One era’s “hep cat” can become a later day’s “player.” And that is one easy example. Overlay regional dialect such as New England’s “wicked” (meaning “very”), New York’s “mad” (also meaning “very”) or our own Southern “all get out” (and yet again), and the risk of misinterpretation can be compounded.

Typical marketing or sales jargon has three phases – 1. qualification of prospects, 2. dealing with objections and 3. closing the deal. Each step directly involves the use of language.

While transactions can transpire in writing, often they unfold in verbal settings. And now virtually by email, messaging or texting. [IDK, BTW, SMH] Or with emojis, emoticons or stickers. Or hashtags.  [#businessingreatergainesville] All of which create their own interpretation perils. And as alternative communications modes such as these enter into the vernacular, questions of enforceability – contractual enforceability – can likewise appear. All of which means, again, that words have meaning.

Proper identification of the demographic of communication must be determined so that clear language can be transmitted to its intended recipients. For example, a company sells an everyday product such as toothpaste. To appeal to its different submarkets (because everyone uses toothpaste – hopefully) in print advertisements, as one medium, they would likely highlight different benefits and employ targeted graphics and turns of phrase … although to each group the company is selling exactly the same product.

Now imagine transactions involving more complicated goods, services or even real property. From a legal perspective, seemingly simple commercial transactions can create unilateral contracts and warranties or can raise the specter of claims of “fraud in the inducement.” Those are risks worth analyzing and avoiding proactively.

Even more stark is the language used in the employment context. To certain recipient groups, various terms and phrases can operate as offensive “dog whistle” code words, although to others, those same words can lead to different effects. At the operational level, the careless use of communication in a workplace can lead to inefficient performance due to vagueness and misinterpretations. In the extreme, it can result in intentional discrimination claims.

Intergenerational language use operates as a high wire act. Take time, pay attention and proactively filter words so the desired concepts are transmitted in a way they are received intact and interpreted accurately. This, when actually implemented, can convert a risk communication into a positive ROI endeavor. Now that is surely a worthwhile use of time, talent and energy.

Is that clear enough?  

For more information, call Philip N. Kabler, Esq. of the Gainesville office of Bogin, Munns & Munns, and P.A. at 352-332-7688,, where he practices in, the areas of business, real estate, banking, and equine law.

This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and readers should not rely on it as such. It is offered only as general information. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding their legal matters, as every situation is unique.

Leave a Comment