Don’t You Dare Say That!

I’m not being the ‘Word Police’ when I say that we have to be very careful about our language. It’s because the words we use affects our thinking and that thinking affects the way that we behave.

It’s much more that the response to the question, ‘How are you?‘ – ‘OK’, ‘Not too bad’, or an outpouring of a list of ailments. (Be warned: When someone enquires about your wellbeing, they probably don’t want you a detailed answer.)

As we age, the words we choose to use become even more important.

Researchers at New York University asked 2 groups of students to construct a sentence using 4 of the 5 words associated with a particular theme. One of the themes, ‘elderly’ contained the words, ‘Florida’, ‘forgetful’, ‘bald’, ‘gray’, and ‘wrinkles’.

When they had completed their initial task, participants were sent to another experiment down the hall. It was the short walk that the experiment was really about. The researchers unobtrusively measured the time it took people to get from one end of the corridor to the other.

It turned out that the young people who had fashioned a sentence from the words with the ‘elderly’ theme walked down the hallway significantly slower than those who chose another theme. Researchers concluded two things: a set of words primed thoughts of old age, even though the word ‘old’ was never used; and thoughts prime behaviour, walking slowly is usually associated with older age.

An immediate implication is, of course, that we need to take control of the words we use and, therefore, our thoughts – the nature of information we ‘feed’ ourselves and expose ourselves to; including the quality of the company we keep. (This message was brilliantly demonstrated in a Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza was sacked by an‘old guy’ (a widower in his ‘eighties) with whom George had volunteered to provide company. George’s ‘companion’ opted out of the relationship, identifying George’s negativity as a severe health hazard.)

While it’s useful to know that there’s research supporting the idea that the words we use have an effect on the way that we behave, we can use this valuable information in reverse in our everyday lives. Two things are required of you.
1. Listen to particular words that people choose to use.
2. Ask yourself, why would they use those words?

As Wittgenstein observed, ‘ The limits of my language are the limits of my world’.