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On Quotations in Communicational Process

I’d like to start with some hypothetical examples.

Example 1. You might have seen somebody saying: “Machiavelli: The end justifies the means” or “As Machiavelli said: The end justifies the means”.

Example 2. “Be the change you wish to see in the world. – Mahatma Gandhi”

Example 3. “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. – Bertrand Russell”. Or “Don’t argue with idiots because they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience. — Greg King”

Example 4. “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. – Confucius” or “Everything comes to you at the right time. Just be patient.”

I am sure some of us are faced with the examples above or similar quotes quite often. Let’s look at them in detail and see how the quotes are usually used and how it can be improved.

Usually there are several reasons to use a quote that appear separately or in combination with each other:

a) Support a speaker's current statement or argument in a dispute or just in a monologue when in addition to the own point of view or knowledge the quote is added to empower the argument or statement;
b) Provide a quote to show the current mood or state of mind to the public or closed audience;
c) Share a quote that someone has stumbled upon and found interesting or worth sharing.

In majority of cases a quote intended benefit supposed to be

i) Adding authority and credibility to the argument or statement,
ii) Reaching out to the audience to involve them in better understanding of what is being said,
iii) Showing off the knowledge possessed by the speaker/author,
iv) Finding illustration of thoughts that speaker or author has got in a better form than this person could express at the moment.

However there are a couple of other explanations

v) Absence of personal knowledge or experience in something,
vi) Feeling of superiority of self and inferiority of others in regards to knowledge or mental abilities.

Now let’s identify the problems arising when quotes are used in conversations, mass media, books, speeches etc.

Problem 1. A quote is usually extracted from the context of its original use. Therefore straight sharing of a quote does only multiply the biased opinion. Twitter rule about the message size that is widely used makes things worse.

Problem 2. Usually the source and accuracy of a quote is not checked and many quotes are attributed to people who never said it or said it differently. There is a good article which explains this issue in more detail. This is relevant to Examples 1 & 2.

Problem 3. Using or acceptance of quotes as a source of truth without background research on a subject matter makes people believe in authority and experience of the quote producer or just a dispatcher. Sometimes experience doesn't exist or is not good enough to be a proper representation of the point.

Problem 4. Many quotes that we see regularly are a try to make a statement about an essence of the universe in 140 symbols or less. This is just impossible therefore only increases evil, because many readers may use this type of quotes as an instruction for life – however that is totally useless. Relevant to Example 4.

Problem 5. Quotes that humiliate others give a false impression to a reader or listener of his/her superiority or relevance to a superior part of humanity. Relevant to Example 3.

We should bear in mind as consumers or producers of information that by reading quotes or using them in our texts or oral conversations we have to adopt some concepts which in turn should improve

  • Our knowledge of the world and certain subject matters that makes us better beings;
  • Our communication methods and results we are trying to achieve when communicating something;
  • Quality of information that will be later used by us and others. 
In my opinion the situation can be improved by introducing the following simple rules:

1. Before using a quote try and see whether you could say the same idea with your own words – it could be more valuable to your audience and show more credibility and caring about the audience.

2. If a quote is required, thoroughly check the authorship, accuracy and context of the quote. i.e. before you quote something including “invisible hand” by Adam Smith it would be great if you have read at least one book by Adam Smith where he himself refers to “invisible hand” and in what context. Specify the exact source of the quote – book, magazine or Web site title and page or URL.

3. After the quote is selected, provide some context and your personal thoughts on the quote. Usually quotes are only relevant to small part of subject matter (unless the quote is long and includes broad explanation of a topic) that is only relevant in particular situation and may trigger questions to discuss from the audience which is great. It will also allow audience to respond with their perception of the quote or your interpretation.

4. Try to avoid quotes that humiliate other groups of people, otherwise the “idiot” or “stupid” in that quote may become you. I am personally ok with this type of quotes, but I can see that other persons could be quite offended.

I believe that suggested rules will improve the person delivering information and the consumer of that information in many aspects by increasing their awareness of what they are talking about and their knowledge and by improving the quality of information.


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