Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

People in Quandaries: Sixty Years Later

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

People in Quandaries: Sixty Years Later

Article excerpt

WENDELL JOHNSON worked tirelessly through his life to create understanding of the processes of language and speech production. He developed a university-level course on general semantics, and it became one of the most popular courses at the University of Iowa, where he was a professor. He wrote more than 150 articles and nearly as many clinical and theoretical papers on the subject of language. And he published ten communications-related books, including People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment (1946)--which was a best seller for several years.

I was introduced to People in Quandaries in 1979, in an adult education course taught by IGS trustee Harry Maynard titled "How to Improve Your Thinking and Communicating Ability" (the course really should have been called "General Semantics 101"). Maynard assigned several chapters in the book over the length of the semester, but I found Johnson's ideas and writing style so compelling that I finished the text in the first month of the term. In the remaining weeks, Johnson's clear and engaging critiques on the usefulness of general semantics to solve problems of everyday living motivated me to read other GS classics, like Language Habits in Human Affairs (1941) and Language in Thought and Action (1949). I was determined to learn as much as I could about general semantics.

I recently reread People in Quandaries and found, sixty years after it was originally published, its advice and relevance for solving personal problems still superb. I was moved by the profundity of Johnson's thoughts, the elegance of his writing, and the excellent examples he used to illustrate the practicality of general semantics for everyday life. I hope when you finish this brief overview of some of the key points in People in Quandaries, you will come to the same positive conclusions as I did regarding this admirable work. (The subheads that follow, and quoted remarks, are from People in Quandaries--the subheads are chapter titles from the book.)

A Brief Overview of People in Quandaries


"This is a book about the problems we have in trying to live with ourselves and with each other. These problems, together with ways of dealing with them, are discussed from the point of view of general semantics. This point of view emphasizes those aspects of the scientific method that are useful in daily living."

Verbal Cocoons

Wendell Johnson was a counselor and teacher who spent much of his energy helping individuals to overcome their personal maladjustments. He observed such maladjustments often developed in people who are "frustrated and distraught idealists." They suffer from, what he termed, the IFD disease--failure to achieve high goals or ideals (the "I"), leads to frustration (the "F"), and after sufficient repetition to demoralization and depression (the "D").

Johnson found the ideals of "maladjusted individuals" problematic in three important respects: (i) these ideals are mathematically unlikely to be reached (e.g., the woman who wants to be a movie star in feature films; the man who wants to make a million dollars a year by the time he is 25), (ii) the ideals are very highly valued, so that one is devastated when they are not achieved (e.g., failing to become a member of a sorority or to make partner in a law firm), and (iii) they involve words with no external referents, or means of measurement--they are vague (e.g., the person who wants to be "successful," "wealthy," "beautiful," "popular," "famous," or "powerful.")

Because maladjusted people are idealists, they subject themselves more or less continuously to the experience of "failure" and so develop feelings of inferiority. "... these people have not learned the simple fact that there is no failure in nature. Failure is a matter of evaluation. Failure is the felt difference between what you expect and what you get. …

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