October 7, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Ostentatious is Ostentatious and Obfuscate Obfuscates

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If neither of the titular words look familiar to you, I’m glad. The first word describes anything done with the intent of impressing or attracting notice. The obscurity of the word itself seems to serve this purpose well. The second word literally means “to make unclear,” and does a wonderful job of complicating any sentence you find it in. Today, I hope to express my opinion of big words, and why they are often pointless.

In January 2014, I was convinced that, as a writer, I was the shit. I entered the second semester with a huge head, but one returned essay was all I needed for a reality check. In retrospect, my first essay was literally five pages of big words, fancy literary mechanisms and unclear critique of the author whose work we were tasked with analyzing. Many smart people compare a well-written collegiate paper to a conversation. My paper was more akin to a UFC fighter loudly asserting his dominance on media day, or an illogical presidential debate. The two are frighteningly similar. I’ll return to this epic failure a few times, but let’s just say I spent the entire semester being schooled in humility. Then I went home.

My hometown of Decatur, Georgia is about 15 minutes from Atlanta and basically the polar opposite of Cornell in almost every way imaginable. I suppress a good 80 percent of this side of me while on campus, but not purely due to race or some perceived ethnic barrier — I maintain this suppression even amongst my black friends. Rather, this switch results from the stark contrast between my past background and my present environment. I have become pretty adept at adjusting my speech to different settings. But like the overconfident Amiri from last semester, some people translate their yearning for recognition into ridiculously overcomplicated comments in class.

Let your words demonstrate your knowledge, but only to an extent. Attempts to make your presence felt beyond this threshold often rub people the wrong way, especially since we’re all still just a bunch of naïve college kids. When you take yourself too seriously, you are no longer a smart kid and have become a smart ass. Using the right words in the right ways to make a point is great. Using other words just because they exist is much more unappealing.

I know what I’m good at. I don’t need to prove it to anyone but myself, and maybe a few potential employers in the future. So if I sound a little formal sometime, this is just a byproduct of my confidence in my ability to express myself. However, the line between confidence and narcissism is about as thin as can be. Tread carefully, or you run the risk of entering dangerous territory (i.e. my FWS endeavors.)

To quote Albert Einstein: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” There is a reason my Biology textbooks, written by all these people with PhDs, are filled with simple metaphors and straightforward examples. At that point in your education, you’ve come to fully appreciate simplicity. Granted, scientific literature can be another animal entirely and academia can be highly pressurized. There are those times when the wording of my textbooks is almost as dense as a paper, so it’s not all sunshine and roses. But on a classroom level, no professor with any merit willingly confuses her or his students.

Everyone at this school is here for the same reason, no matter what anyone thinks. If someone shoots you a condescending look because of how you’re talking, so be it. We’re all here, and no one is better than anyone else. I’m just as human as you. There is much more to the world than a high GPA or a large vocabulary. Outside of the intellectual circles and Ivy League bubbles, there are literally billions of people who could not care less and, in many ways, know more. I’m not against respecting talent, but I feel that intimidation from peers can lead people to play an unwinnable game of “who’s smarter.”

To wit: Everything isn’t a competition. I doubt anyone’s grade or destiny is dependent on how smart they sound, how deep in thought they look when speaking or how intensely they seem to grapple with concepts. I would argue that most work here boils down to the ability to express yourself and show a healthy level of engagement with course content. Anything extra is, well, extra. Unnecessary. Superfluous. Kind of like my hypocritical use of that third adjective just now.

My message to fellow Cornellians is a simple one: act natural. I have a natural tendency towards formality when I speak, which becomes more pronounced in the classroom. Still, I’d like to think I know where to draw the line or when to just say nothing at all. An aura of vanity can envelope someone who is trying too hard and leak out of the classroom into your interactions with people in more casual settings. Not a fun time.

We all have to change it up for different settings; I know this well. But when catering your words to an audience, please be honest with yourself about why you’re doing so. Hopefully, you won’t pretentiously employ the locution that most ostentatiously corroborates your thesis, obfuscating your missive. Hopefully, you’ll just state your claim.

Amiri Banks is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at abanks@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

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