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Choose words wisely

In an article about managerial techniques and effective leadership, a writer compares “toughness” on one end of a spectrum with “being more touchy-feely” on the opposite end.

Given workplace restrictions on both touching and feeling, I stopped to consider what this writer might mean.

“Touchy-feely,” in my experience, is an expression used sarcastically by people who scorn emotional expression. It’s slightly derogatory, and it suggests behavior that goes beyond someone’s comfort level.

Touchy-feely defined at The Free Dictionary:

1. Marked by or emphasizing physical closeness and emotional openness: became uncomfortable when the group therapy session got too touchy-feely.

2. Based on sentiment or intuition, especially to the exclusion of critical judgment.

Oxford Dictionaries:

informal, often derogatory

openly expressing affection or other emotions, especially through physical contact: touchy-feely guys calling home to talk baby talk to their kids

characteristic of or relating to touchy-feely behavior: such touchy-feely topics as employees’ personal values

Urban Dictionary:

When someone is all over you, touching and feeling.

To be touched and felt with/without your consent or knowledge. Usually committed in jail, prison, all boy schools, concerts, dates, award ceremonies, church, and my house.

Perhaps compassionate, fair-minded, or empathetic would communicate the writer’s intention more accurately than touchy-feely. But “tough and compassionate” is thought by many to be an ideal leadership trait:

“At the White House…Bush sought to strike a tough but compassionate tone….” (The Washington Post)

“Tough” has many definitions at Oxford Dictionaries such as confident and determined, strict and uncompromising, strong enough to withstand adverse conditions or rough or careless handling, and notorious for violence and crime.

Overly aggressive, cold and uncaring, or hostile might have been this writer’s intended meaning, but what he or she meant by either “toughness” or “touchy-feely” isn’t clear. Since there are many other, more authoritative and specific articles readily available, I’ll approach this site with caution should it come up in a search again.

Careful word choice is essential to effective communication, especially when writing for blogs or websites. An international readership indicates that what is easily understood in one part of the world—or in a particular group or neighborhood—may have little meaning, at best, in another part of the world.

At worst, our words may convey completely unintended meanings or no meaning at all.

How would a non-native, non-fluent English reader understand “touchy-feely?” In German, several online translators such as Google and bab.la offer gefühlsduselig or überempfindlich which translate back to mushy, oversentimental, slobbery, overemotional, smarmy, hypersensitive, effusive, exuberant, and maudlin, among others. Is that what the writer intended?

Touchy-feely sounds like groping, if you ask me, and better a tough boss than a smarmy one.

Comments are welcome.

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