It should come as no surprise to any of us that your words convey a message. After all, that’s why we do the speaking for the communication.
However, it may be a little more surprising what message is actually being conveyed when you choose a certain word or phrase. You might know precisely what you meant – but do your students? Does the intended meaning still accompany the same words when your student repeats them to someone else, or does the meaning change as the message gets further away from you?
It is probably no secret that I regard precision, conciseness, and quality of communication as particularly important skills for instructors. In this article, I’d like to showcase a few relatively quick examples of things that I have often heard people say, to illustrate which message may have been intended and which message is sometimes actually conveyed.
Helmets or fencing masks?
It can be quite good fun to refer to our fencing masks and helmets, lids, or hats. I quite like the notion of fencing hats (and the illustrations in the Palaestra Svecana showcase some truly amazing fencing outfits, in my opinion), but these are obviously no substitute for a proper fencing mask in terms of protecting the face.
My issue with the term “helmet” is that helmet often conjures the idea of some very solid armour, perhaps something thick and solid. It may also convey the idea of something like a cycling helmet, something disposable but quite capable of protecting the head against tremendous impacts.
The humble fencing mask is neither. If you take a heavy hit to a fencing mask, even a CEN 2 rated mask, you may well experience concussion, waffling, or other pains. You cannot treat someone’s head inside a fencing mask the way you might treat a head encased in a properly-suspended, heavy-gauge, hardened-steel helmet.
Calling a fencing mask a “helmet” may be fun, but can also lead to students being a bit more lax about control as they start to consider the equipment more protective than it actually is, due to the message you actually conveyed by your words. This isn’t just a theoretical, “it might happen” sort of thing; I have witnessed precisely this, so many times, over my more-than-a-decade of teaching HEMA.
Just be careful with your words so that you do not suggest that a piece of equipment is anything other than what it actually is.
(Along a similar line, if you refer to 350N masks compared to 1600N masks, you should probably also update your vocabulary so that you are talking about the CEN ratings of the masks, since 350N and 1600N are pretty useless terms for most of our purposes.)
Meyer is just sport fencing
Another thing that I often hear people saying jokingly is that Meyer is just sport fencing. The trouble with saying this jokingly is that it reinforces the message that Meyer is just sport fencing. It doesn’t reinforce the opposite message, nor does it reinforce the idea that you may have been sarcastic or poking fun at the issue. If people hear often enough that Meyer is just sport fencing, then that’s how they begin to think about the issue.
And, if you have genuinely good reasons for saying this, but you choose to use this particular phrase because it is provocative, then this is still unfortunately part of the problem. By reinforcing the phrase, you reinforce the simplest understanding of the message, and you lose the nuance that is so very important when we are discussing history and context.
I fully agree that Meyer was not just teaching “earnest fighting” or fencing for the judicial duel. He was teaching for a variety of purposes and outcomes, and one of the most important training tools in the 15th and 16th centuries was fighting for competition and fun, just as it remains today one of our more important training tools.
However, if you don’t accompany the phrase “sport fencing” with an appropriate qualification and nuance, then people will automatically apply whatever understanding or definition they personally have for “sport”. And it should be pretty clear that most people don’t really have a good, nuanced, developed understanding of this concept – so you have to help them learn it, and that requires more than a cheap soundbite or sarcastic comment.
It’s in one of the sources
Can you really justify any possible movement, action, or statement by saying “it’s in one of the sources”? I don’t think so, but on social media and in the pub at events, I often hear people making some wacky claim or another. And when challenged, they can’t provide an actual source or citation, just the statement that “it’s in one of the sources”.
Well, which source? And what sequence or strategy is it part of? Could it possibly be that if you can’t point at the correct source for the movement, action, or statement, then maybe you aren’t quite knowledgeable enough about it and maybe you are misremembering or misrepresenting it?
To give an example, when teaching a class that is notionally about Liechtenauer’s longsword, it would be a mistake to teach striking with the pommel and then to justify it by saying “it’s in one of the sources”. It is in one of the sources: Fiore, who was not part of the Liechtenauer tradition.
Similarly, when teaching basket-hilted broadsword, it would be a mistake to teach that you can throw your one-handed sword at the opponent, and to justify that by saying that “it’s in the sources”. Again, it is in one of the sources: also Fiore, who was definitely not teaching about the use of the basket-hilted broadsword.
(If you want to disprove either of these examples, and you can point at a specific source where such a technique is actually taught, then good for you, and you are proving my point for me about making a better argument by quoting a more specific source!)
If the best justification that you can offer is that “it’s in the sources”, without anything more specific to evidence where the idea came from, then you are running the risk of legitimising to your students the behaviour of hearing some random fact once upon a time and then considering it textbook and canon forever after, because it is, apparently, in a source.
A little more precision, clarity, and evidence would go a long way toward helping people have a better quality of discussion about HEMA (and history in general).
There’s a theory that…
In a very similar fashion, I hear painfully often that “there is a theory that [some nonsense]”. It is usually something that people are repeating from YouTube, or from a HEMA book published the better part of two decades ago – or from HEMA teachings that were once cutting-edge but that haven’t really updated in the last two decades.
Again, it often occurs in discussions on social media or in the pub at events. And what happens is that newer practitioners hear it and give it the same weight as something that was said by a more up-to-date instructor or in a peer-reviewed academic article.
There’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastic in the pub. I do it too. Maybe a little too much after a sufficient quantity of beer. But rather than qualifying everything equally as “there is a theory that…”, maybe say that “there is an old and out of date theory that…” or “an intriguing new idea I heard from [person] is that…”, so that your audience gets a better sense of the likely validity of what you are saying.
And if you realise that in fact the theory is a few years old, maybe that should be a sign that it might be worth updating your knowledge on the subject by seeing what people have been saying more recently about the issue. Scholarship is advancing pretty swiftly in the HEMA community, and you might be amazed just how much more is known about the subject now compared to when you last looked into it.
We do full contact fighting
Finally, this is a phrase that I used to hear regularly whenever buhurt, HEMA, or re-enactment groups were telling people what they do, perhaps even when trying to advertise or recruit new members. Telling people that you do “full contact fighting” conjures a certain image in people’s minds – usually of people just beating on each other with strength and without necessarily much of anything else.
Is that really the message you want to convey? I have seen it countless times that someone in one of these kinds of groups has been enthusiastically telling a potential recruit that “we do full contact fighting!” and the potential new member loses all interest almost instantly, because the person doing the talking was blind or deaf to what the potential recruit was looking for in their membership of the group, and pushed a message that turned off all interest in the group.
I have also seen groups that tend to do mostly light contact work refer to their training as “full contact with swords” when recruiting, pulling in a group of people expecting significantly harder training and heavier contact than what was actually allowed, and who therefore left in disgust.
Don’t mis-sell what you do in your club. Be honest, and represent it correctly to people. You won’t bring in recruits who are not interested in what you do, saving everyone the time and hassle, and you will do a much better job of recruiting people who are actually interested in what you do.
When one of my previous clubs used to do open days to recruit new members, our success rates sky-rocketed when I coached our demonstrators with a specific set of phrases that they could use that would better represent our activities. Membership intakes improved drastically after that, because people heard the right information and came along because they were interested in doing what our club actually did. It was a match made in heaven, and all it took was slightly more precision and slightly less hyperbole.
I hope that something in this article will be of value to instructors, or advanced practitioners, or even just for people who like to watch a lot of YouTube videos and then chat about them with club mates.
Since teaching and instructing is a matter of communication of information, a better quality of both the communication and the information will lead to efforts and results that are much more effective. A simple thing that you can do to audit the effectiveness of your communication skills is to consider how often you use the phrases in this article, or phrases like them, whether in an attempt at humour or in casual and informal discussion.
Your words always convey a message. It is ideal when they convey precisely the message you want to communicate. It is not so helpful when your students go away with the wrong message that you conveyed by mistake.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.