Why L&D Professionals May “Literally” Have a Problem

It is crucial to train employees to clearly and effectively communicate with customers and project the image you want your community to have of your company.

“I literally woke up at 6 a.m.” Or: “I literally told him I don’t like oranges.” Or how about: “I literally went upstairs to get the book.”

Literally, literally, literally. Could people—especially Millennials and Generation Zers—say this word more? Do they know that by most definitions of the word, it is not a synonym for “actually”?

During my daily long walks through downtown New York City, I hear the word, “literally,” multiple times during each one. The misuse and overuse of this word results in the speaker coming across as uneducated to people like me who work with words for a living. The interesting thing is that perception is not reality. The area I walk through is where New York University is based, with most of the “literal” offenders college students.

The epic misuse of “literally” has been observed for years. I found a Boston.com staff article from 2011 about it. “My impression is that many people don’t have any idea of what ‘literally’ means—or used to mean,’’ the article quotes Jean Berko Gleason, a psycholinguist at Boston University, as saying. “So they say things such as: ‘He was literally insane with jealousy.’ If in response, you asked them if this person had been institutionalized, they’d look at you as if you were the crazy one. The new ‘literally’ is being used interchangeably with words such as ‘quite,’ ‘rather,’ and ‘actually.’ ’”

L&D’s Role

When I overhear “literally” misused, I fantasize about being a college professor. “One full grade deduction on any paper in which ‘literally’ is misused according to its traditional definition,” I imagine myself telling horrified students.

Learning and Development (L&D) professionals don’t have to fantasize about correcting language misuse. Indeed, some would say it’s part of your job to ensure a high level of communication among your employees, including the correct usage of words. When words are chronically misused and overused, they lose their meaning, as Gleason observed to the Boston.com staff.

 Part of every employee’s development should include opportunities to make presentations to their work group, and, if possible, to larger groups. It also should include weekly, if not daily, written communications. Those presentations and written communications should be periodically evaluated by your L&D team. L&D professionals should note employees whose communication is convoluted and riddled with language errors. It is not to be a stickler for what you may see as outdated language rules, but to know what your customers and community are hearing. You want your employees to project themselves as intelligent and educated, so customers can feel secure asking questions, and feel confident that the information they get in return is accurate.

Other Communication No-No’s

As far as I know, I have never worked for a company that had a required communication skills course. That’s a shame because it’s very much needed. In addition to misuse of “literally,” it’s too common to hear “like” used in place of “said,” or to use “like” as a nervous tick. “Like, I think it’s a requirement.” Or: “It’s, like, the way we do things.” Or: “I was like, ‘No, I literally won’t do that.’” Or how about: “I think, like, it’s a great idea.” I went through a phase when I did this as an adolescent. My parents quickly quashed it. In so many words, they let me know that saying “like” multiple times in a few sentences did not make me sound smart.

Other communication no-no’s that seem to be the norm? One that immediately comes to mind is the peculiar tendency of many people (especially Millennials and Generation Zers) to have their voice rise at the end of every sentence, as if it were a question.

Misuse and overuse of “literally,” “like,” and making declarative sentences sound like questions take a toll on professional image and the ability of your employees to communicate clearly and confidently with customers and your community.

Real World vs. Virtual World

Along with my irritation at these normalized language blunders, comes a slightly dark, existential thought. I wonder whether “literally” is used so often because we feel the need to emphasize that something happened in the physically present real world rather than the virtual one. And perhaps the pronunciation of declarative sentences as questions is a sign of insecurity and fear of making firm statements.

The language errors employees make can reveal their perspective, and indicate where an organization may need to provide a confidence boost—with corrections when necessary and a lot of practice.

Do you require communication skills training? How do you ensure your employees are clearly and effectively communicating to customers, and projecting the image you want your community to have of your company?