staying away from the grindstone
I’ve been asked to write a bunch of letters of recommendation this semester. Engaging in this exercise brought back to mind an amusing debate that I had with Fabio in what seems like a thousand years ago. In this exchange Fabio defended—what I still think is the hopelessly naive—proposition that using terms such as “hardworking” in a recommendation letter was a good thing. I had the unenviable task of reminding my recalcitrant friend of the fact that certain adjectives are not “positive” on their own, especially if they (automatically as cognitive scientists are increasingly finding) bring to mind their opposite (e.g. effortless talent) and especially if said opposite is precisely the ideal that is (implicitly, wordlessly) favored in the elite nooks and crannies of certain culture production fields (such as academia).
The funny thing is that it never occurred to me until now to consider the possibility that there might actually exist a social science literature on this. It turns out that (an apparently tiny) literature does exist and that (shocking for some I suppose; absolutely unsurprisingly to me), the phenomenon even has a name (and if you read Merton, you know that if a phenomenon has been baptized then it must be important!). It is called “grindstone words.” In the—content and discourse-analytic—research that I had a chance to carelessly glance at (here and here), grindstone words (including “hardworking”) are negatively correlated (in a biochemistry and chemistry sample of letters) with the use of “standout” keywords (which as I noted originally, generally refer to intrinsic or effortless ability). One of the papers (using a medical school sample) finds that grindstone words are used more often in letters describing women candidates in comparison to male candidates (which is what you would expect if the automatic association of grindstone words was negative and not positive).
So for the love of everything that is holy, and pace Fabio and Steve, don’t pepper (I don’t and I have been able to fill up up three or more single-spaced pages) your recommendation letter with allusions to hard work (although you should listen to Fabio on everything else that he’s ever, ever said; ever. Oh, except for that Obama’s toast thing).