I was reading a tweet on Twitter a few minutes ago, and the writer mentioned that for her, clicking “like” on a tweet that contained hateful stuff did not automatically mean she liked the content; she was trying to convey with just that one word that she was glad the subject was being “talked” about.

So clicking like – whether on Twitter, LI, FB, or any other platform –  doesn’t always mean like. Oh, boy.

Of course, she realized that clicking like could be misconstrued, so she wrote a brief description of what she meant. That’s a lot of work to make sense of one little word! And then I realized how much I agreed that the word can have different meanings, to me at least. Sometimes I’m clicking like without agreeing with all or part of the article. Sometimes I’m trying to support a writer voicing an unpopular idea that I do agree with, but sometimes I am merely supporting the writer by giving the article exposure to my connections. And sometimes I’m just trying to let the writer know someone has at least seen the article!

Then I started reading Harry Beckwith’s 1997 book Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing, which I ordered (and just received) when I found out it was named last week as the Editor’s Choice: The 10 Best Books on Marketing of All Time by BestMarketingDegrees.org.

How could I not? Written over 20 years ago, and on a Top 10 list of all time?

I immediately found a section titled “The Letterman Principle” on page 26 where Harry wrote about written surveys and how even simple words in questions can be misunderstood by those taking the survey.

Which word was his first choice to discuss? Like.

Of course it was.

He got my full attention when he showed how saying we like someone may not mean what we intend or what the reader or listener understands.

Someone might ask “Who do you like better, Bill or George?” And most of the time, it’s a simple enough question. We might say we like one or the other because he’s a good person. Got a great heart. All that good stuff. But in a sports or political arena, that word takes on a whole new meaning.

You’ve heard others say this, right? “Who do you like in the Patriots / Bills game?” And I suppose if you don’t follow football – or don’t actually like either team – you might answer “I don’t know” or “neither.” But what’s the real question in this instance? “Who do you think will win in the Patriots/Bills game?”


So a Bills fan might answer with gritted teeth “The Pats,” without liking the answer or the team, right? (Sorry, Bills fans.)

In politics, it’s a question we ask a lot. “Who do you like in the race for city council” Again, many might answer “none of them.” But the real question is usually intended to be about who we think will win, with “like” standing in for that thought.

There are thousands of words that can mean different things to different people and/or in different situations, so to communicate clearly, we need to be aware of the potential traps. We have no right to blame someone else for not understanding us when we use a word that can be ambiguous because of its many meanings or due to context. We just need to stay alert to the possibilities.

Are there words that have tripped you up as you have communicated? Words that mean one thing to you but something very different to someone else? Please share here, and help us all learn!

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Larry Tyler

Great Article. I think I will have to read that book.