Tapping into the power of words

Image of scrabble letters to demonstrate message f the power of words.

Key takeaways

  • Words can change how we experience the world. They can inspire, motivate, unite, incite fear, hatred or division.
  • The potency of words comes from their ability to shape thoughts, emotions, behaviours and perceptions.
  • Words convey a message through their meaning but also through the way they are presented.
  • Words aren't just descriptive; they are generative, influencing our thoughts and actions in profound ways.
  • By being aware of the power of our words, we can foster clearer interactions, navigate conflicts more adeptly, and provide feedback effectively.

Words can change how we experience the world. They can inspire, motivate, unite, incite fear, hatred or division, thus existing as a powerful (or dangerous) tool, depending on how you use them. The power of words comes from their ability to shape thoughts, emotions, behaviours and perceptions so much so that research indicates that words can affect how people perceive events, experience physical pain, and even influence healing processes.

I’ve come to a clearer realisation of the power that words have by using them totally incorrectly in other languages. It’s a truly humbling experience to watch the disastrous chain of reactions you set in motion when you drop a word in the wrong context or place the sentence stress in a manner that flips the meaning. I did the former recently when I called a close friend a ‘donkey’ in Arabic in front of his family. When we are amongst our friends, we would always poke fun at each other with some low-key insults which always felt playful and safe. And donkey in English doesn’t sound so bad, right? If I called you a cow or a pig… that’s an insult, but what’s so wrong with donkeys? I love donkeys! Well, apparently, there is a time and a place for calling someone a donkey in Arabic, and I had grossly miscalculated.

Whilst speaking other languages alerts you to the power of words (mostly through putting your foot in it), it also gives you access to another way of interpreting the world. The theory of linguistic relativity suggests that language influences how people think, impacting their worldviews and behaviour. This concept indicates that the structure and vocabulary of a language can affect the cognition and worldview of its speakers. For example, languages with specific grammatical categories or concepts may lead speakers to perceive and interpret the world differently.

Words convey a message through their meaning but also through the way they are presented, such as their order in a sentence or the use of a certain word instead of another similar one. Even saying nothing at all has a meaning. But how much can one’s use of language, including word choice, influence others? In this following blog we will explore the power that our words can have in ways we are, perhaps, unconscious of and how this can and should be a consideration when communicating at work.

4 ways in which words are powerful:

1. Language and responsibility for actions

Grammar, such as active versus passive constructions, can impact how events are perceived. E.g. the suspect was shot (rather than a policeman shot the suspect). The former removes responsibility and causality rather than the latter which attributes agency and indicates who the perpetrator was.

How about ‘mistakes were made’, a phrase you have most likely heard spoken by presidents and prime ministers. NPR have called this phrase ‘the king of non apologies’ and the late William Safire, a political speechwriter and journalist devoted an entry in Safire’s Political Dictionary to this often-used phrase describing it as ‘a passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it’.

The power that grammar has in event perception can also perpetuate harmful misconceptions. For example, in an Instagram post about the role of media in stopping rape culture, the United Nations suggests that titles like, “Woman raped at man’s flat after 12 glasses of wine” be replaced by, “Man raped woman at his flat”. When framing a headline, it’s important to verify whom accountability is being assigned and consider whether there is a (mis)leading attribution of responsibility. Pay attention to this next time you are scrolling through headlines.

Whilst I would argue that we need to be alert to misuse of the passive voice, there are also times when it is totally appropriate. For example, if I was conducting an investigation, it would be most appropriate to employ the passive voice when talking about those involved until causation and responsibility has been assigned. Using the passive voice may also be most appropriate when describing processes or where your tone needs to appear more ‘neutral’ or formal or in cases where the author or originator of the subject are unknown. When communicating at work there may also be moments when directness could sound insensitive. If so, using passive voice can soften the message. For example, rather than saying ‘The CEO has decided to not give you a raise’ I could say ‘a raise cannot be given at this time’.

What does this mean for you?

Bringing an awareness to how and when we are using these grammatical constructions can help us clarify our communication and bring a consciousness to how passive vs active may shape reactions and perceptions. Really consider the power of words here and how you are using these tenses in situations of conflict resolution, feedback, relaying important updates and apologies.

2. The metaphors we use shape our reality

Metaphors are pervasive in our lives, not just in language but also in thought and action. In the book ‘Metaphors we live by’ the authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are not just linguistic devices; they are fundamental to structuring our understanding of concepts, influencing how we perceive the world and how we act upon those perceptions. i.e. metaphors are not just describing the world, they are creating it. Let’s look at some examples:

The metaphor “Time is money” (often attribute to Benjamin Franklin, who used it in his essay “Advice to a young tradesman” published in 1748) affects how we value time and prioritise tasks. It frames time as a valuable resource that can be spent, saved, or wasted, impacting our daily decisions and actions. The saying has become a dominant metaphor in popular culture as a symbol of the value of time and the need for individuals to prioritise their activities wisely. In contemporary contexts, especially during challenging times like the COVID-19 pandemic, the phrase was invoked to encourage individuals to make meaningful use of their time for personal growth and fulfilment.

If we travel further back in time, to Europe during the Middle Ages, we can see that the dominant metaphor for life was the fortune’s wheel. The wheel which plunged the mighty down and (more rarely) lifted up the lowly. The metaphor of fortune’s wheel implied that progress, moral or material, was, sadly, not achievable for most people in their lifetime. Since then, Western culture has evolved the notion of “progress”, and it has become rooted in our metaphors. History “marches” on, implying that it is leading somewhere, not just spinning us around. You’ve probably heard the saying “being on the right side of history”, a phrase that makes no sense if you think of history as a wheel spinning in circles. How can one be on the “right” side of a wheel?

What does this mean for you?

Be actively curious about the metaphors which shape your culture and the world around you as well as the dominant metaphors in other cultures and languages. When I’m writing, during the drafting process, I do one read for colloquialisms (metaphors included) — i.e. is there any language I am using which is super British, very Southeast London or in some way not mutually intelligible outside of the identities and experiences that are personal to me. I’d also recommend searching for and even translating metaphors from other cultures and using them. Sometimes a metaphor sums up what 1000 words cannot, so they are a great tool to have in your linguistic toolkit and introducing a new metaphor to illuminate a point can add new perspectives and be more memorable than a familiar one. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite examples in Arabic; ‘He who doesn’t know, says “lentils”’, meaning, those who don’t know the truth of a story will just say anything as an explanation.

3. Framing

It’s not just the content of what we say that matters, it is how we frame it. Framing is usually done through association. Take the example of the German word “Flüchtlingswelle” (“wave of refugees”). From 2015 onwards, it was invoked regularly to describe the refugee movements that occurred largely due to the war in Syria. The term was used by various political parties and media that certainly did not always have ulterior motives. However, this does not change the impact of such a term, which could cause many of those consuming the media to imagine masses of people crashing in, like a wave, again and again — in other words, a threatening and unstoppable force of nature. And what should we do in the face of such a wave? For some, the association would be to build a dam or a protective wall to stop the wave and protect it from reaching its destination. In other countries, including our own, you may have heard the language of ‘invasion,’ ‘flooding,’ and ‘swamping’ to describe the arrival of immigrants and asylum seekers. You might be forgiven upon hearing this framing that we are facing an invasion for thinking that we are at war. And how do we respond in times of war? With military force. That would be normal, right?  Framing not only shapes our perception, but how we deem it fit to respond.

The best playground in which to test your awareness of framing would be through listening to politicians. Politicians use framing to sway public opinion. For example, framing a policy as ‘investing in our future’ vs ‘tax burden increase’ can significantly impact public reception. Which one sounds better to you? Or, to give another example (and give politicians a break for a brief moment), would you be more likely to agree to an operation if the surgeon presented it as having ‘an 80% success rate’ or ‘a 20% mortality rate’? Which one sounds more appealing?

What does this mean for you?

Consider how framing can be used to elicit positive responses or to boost engagement. With written communication you might want to write down the key information first and then experiment with the framing and get feedback from others on how the framing is affecting their reception of the message. Framing is particularly important when communicating change at work or the announcement of new projects. It is also key in our day-to-day work life when we are giving feedback, setting goals and encouraging collaboration.

Most of us, if we’ve studied any kind of foreign language, are familiar with the concept of gendered nouns or gendered parts of speech. Gendered nouns have, say, adjectives that have to agree with the gender of the noun, especially in romance languages. If your mother tongue is English, it might be strange to imagine that in other languages even inanimate objects like cushions and teapots have genders, but, linguistically, they do!

One researcher (Boroditsky, in her article ‘How does our language shape the way we think‘) even found that speakers of languages which use noun genders, such as Spanish, sometimes think of the objects as having masculine or feminine traits, depending on their grammatical gender in that language.

Whilst we don’t have a grammatical system that genders nouns and adjectives don’t go thinking that English is a totally ungendered language. We tend to reserve certain adjectives for certain genders. For example, how often do you hear a man being called ‘bossy’, ‘frumpy’ or ‘hysterical’? Or a woman being called ‘brutish’? It’s also of note that in English some gender word pairs are clearly unequal in their connotations, e.g. Master vs mistress, wizard vs witch. The male version tends to have more positive associations than the feminine version.

There is also a lot of language in circulation that casts the male as the generic norm and keeps women from being visible in public life. Think about the kind of language we use to describe human achievement and the advances of ‘man’ and ‘mankind’. Man is also cast as the generic in language we use to describe shared experiences e.g. ‘man in the street’ (meaning, your average person).

Gendered language is especially relevant to the workplace given that we, in principle, are getting nearer to equality but in action the gender pay gap still exists and men are disproportionately in leadership roles; Only 17% of small businesses in the UK are majority led by women, indicating a significant gender disparity in leadership roles in the UK, the gender pay gap for full-time employees is 14.8%, with disparities more pronounced among higher earners. If we acknowledge that language shapes our perception then it’s all the more important that we make conscious choices with the words we use to describe our colleagues, especially women.

What does this mean for you?

Express both caution and interest in the type of language you are using. When describing a characteristic of a woman, ask yourself, ‘would I ever use this word to describe a man?’ (And vice versa). If not, then look for a term without gender connotations. Gendered language in English can reinforce stereotypes, perpetuate inequality, and influence societal perceptions of gender roles. By recognising and addressing these linguistic biases, efforts can be made towards promoting inclusivity, equality, and challenging traditional gender norms embedded in language use. I recommend downloading the European Institute for Gender Equality’s toolkit on gender sensitive communication which is a great resource for anyone who wants to make their communication more inclusive.

Final thoughts on the power of words

The power of words comes from the fact that they are not just descriptive; they are generative, influencing our thoughts and actions in profound ways.

Whether it’s recognising the nuances between active and passive voice to assign accountability accurately or avoiding language that perpetuates gender-based stereotypes, being conscious of our word choices can significantly influence how information is received.

By being aware of the power of our words we can foster clearer interactions, navigate conflicts more adeptly, provide feedback effectively, relay important updates, and offer genuine apologies that resonate with others.

Do you want to learn more on the power of words and how to communicate better?

Check out our communication fundamentals workshop which takes you through communication fundamentals, the challenges and how to address them.

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