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I’m a writer, so of course words matter to me. But the words which are really crucial – the words which can lift our day or kill it – are the ones which we use to communicate with.

Words have real power. That can be legal power (a verbal or written contract), or, more often, interpersonal power. Words can hurt. Words can heal. Words can build a relationship, or destroy one.

Words can also be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Sometimes we’re vague or inarticulate when we’re speaking, sometimes we’re not paying attention when we’re listening … and sometimes we simply have completely different definitions of a word.

One of many memorable conversations from SXSWi was in Pace and Kyeli’s car, with Nathalie Lussier and Andy Hayes. It was late. We’d been drinking. We’d somehow got onto the topic of words which mean different things in UK English and US English, and Andy and I explained that the word “fanny” (an innocent synonym for “backside” in the US) is a term for the vagina (or the female genitalia more generally) here in the UK.

Cue much disbelief and hilarity… (and if you want to avoid running afoul of some weird UK word, there’s a handy list UK slang here.)

If a word simply had no meaning in one language (e.g. “sidewalk” – we know it means “pavement”, but we don’t use the word in the UK), it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s when a word has two different meanings that things get tricky.

Most of my paid work is for American blogs and websites, plus I’ve seen American TV shows and films, and read American books. So I’m generally aware of words which mean something different: like “pants” meaning what I call “trousers”, not what I call “underpants”. Even so, there’s always a moment of mental translation when I hear a word which doesn’t carry the right meaning. A passing reference to my “pants” means thinking hmm, that’s kinda, er, a bit personal … oh wait, s/he means “trousers”…

And that happens even when I know exactly how my definition of the word is different.

The thing is, there’s not one homogenous version of English, in the UK or in the US, or anywhere else, where we all agree on exactly what different words mean. We each have an idiolect (“idio-” as in idiosyncratic, not as in idiot). We learn to speak from our family or from people in the area where we grow up. And this can present difficulties as we grow older, move away, meet new friends and start relationships.

When Words Get in the Way of Communication

My fiancé, Paul, uses the word “infuriated” in contexts where I’d use “annoyed”. Even though I know he has a different definition for that word, it still makes me feel tense when he uses it. A couple of days ago, I explained that, “It bothers me because I can’t even imagine saying that I was infuriated.”

He said, “Me neither. If you were ‘infuriated’, you’d be on a killing spree.”

So Paul understands how I use the word (to mean “really, genuinely, very furious”) and I understand how he uses it (to mean “annoyed”). The fact that this still causes tension shows just how powerful words can be.

Why? In this case, I think it’s because “infuriated” pushes my buttons. I don’t deal with other people’s anger very well. Even when it’s obviously not directed at me, I take it too personally. I want to do anything I can to defuse angry situations. I sometimes get angry at myself, but I rarely get angry with other people. I get grumpy and irritable, but I’m very rarely angry.

In any relationship, there are going to be words which mean different things to each partner. Paul and I come from roughly the same bit of the UK (the south-east), and from broadly similar backgrounds, so I can only imagine the effect is much stronger for many other couples.

What can we do about it? It helps to check with people what they mean, especially if you’re starting to feel anxious, prickly or defensive. If I say to Paul, “When you tell me you’re infuriated, what does that mean to you? How angry are you?” then I’ve got a much better chance of understanding him.

I’ve just finished reading Pace and Kyeli’s excellent book on communication, The Usual Error, and they mention that “degree terms” (like “very”, “quite”, “a little”, “a lot”, “soon”) can be confusing. They have a neat idea which I’m tempted to try:

We use a scale from -10 to +10, with -10 being incredibly horrible, 0 being neutral and +10 being incredibly wonderful. … We came to terms on several of the numbers, talking about how good or bad different experiences were for us and agreeing on a shared scale. Now we can accuratel compare our preferences.

(Pace and Kyeli Smith, The Usual Error: Why We Don’t Understand Each Other And 34 Ways to Make It Better, Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk)

Talking to Yourself

The words we use to communicate with others are crucial. But the words we use in our own heads also matter, a lot.

Over the past couple of years (since knowing the fantastic Tim Brownson, in fact), I’ve been making an effort to avoid telling myself that I “should” do this or  “have to” do that. It’s a hard habit to get out of, but I have noticed that I feel much more positive about my life when I rephrase things in my head.

If you say you have to do something, then there is no option. Not a bad thing you may be thinking after all we need to breathe, we need to work and we need to tell everybody we know to read this blog. However, when we use those kind of expressions to describe things that really aren’t needed, don’t have to be done and aren’t necessities we put an undue amount of pressure on ourselves. We start to feel like we’re backed into a corner and have no way out.

(Tim Brownson, Mind Your Language, The Discomfort Zone)

Instead of “I should write a blog post this afternoon,” I’ll say that “I want to write a blog post this afternoon” or even simply make a statement of intent: “I’m going to write a blog post this afternoon.”

When I decided that the word office has negative connotations for me, I decided that the room I’m going to have in our new house will be my study. It might sound like such a tiny, semantic difference – but altering one word can reframe my whole relationship with my workplace.

If you find yourself constantly using strict, harsh words within your own thoughts, think about ways you could change them. Be particularly cautious about words like need and should – because they’re often not true. You don’t need a slice of chocolate cake … though you may want one, and that’s fine. And who says you should clean the kitchen? (Are you worrying about what other people will think?)

Limiting Words can Limit Your World

There are certain words that we unhelpfully limit. I wrote about the word “work” couple of weeks ago with What Is Work? And Why Does It Matter? and offered some thoughts about the word “productivity” in a guest post a few weeks back on Productive Flourishing – The Missing Half of Productivity Advice: Why Women Need to Get Involved.

Of course words have concrete meanings and can’t simply be used to refer to whatever the heck we want, but some words – like “work” and “productivity” – have broad meanings which get unnecessarily curtailed.

Your attitude towards your work, and the place which your work fills in your life, will be different depending on what meaning you give that word.

  • Does “work” mean “it pays money”?
  • Does “work” mean “it’s the opposite of fun”?
  • Does “work” mean “a place I go to”?

It’s worth digging into what certain words mean to you, and why. Does “productivity” mean “getting as much done as possible”? Is that your definition, or something you’ve picked up along the way?

If “education” means “school” to you, you might never consider alternative ways of allowing your kids to learn. If “Christianity” (or whatever your religion is) means “my denomination”, you might have rejected ways of worshipping, praying and relating to God without even considering them. If “justice” means “punishing bad people”, can it still include “feeding the hungry”?

In Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the fictional language “Newspeak” has been constructed to eliminate politically undesirable concepts:

A person growing up with Newspeak as his sole language would no more know that equal had once had the secondary meaning of ‘politically equal’, or that free had once meant ‘intellectually free’, than for instance, a person who had never heard of chess would be aware of the secondary meanings attaching to queen and rook.

(George Orwell, Appendix of 1984)

Orwell is a great writer, particularly on issues to do with language (his essay “Politics and the English Language” is well worth a read) and the point he’s making here is very valid. It’s hard to conceive of a concept clearly without a word to describe it. This is one of the reasons for borrowing foreign words (e.g. the German schadenfreude, which has no simple equivalent in English).

We’ve got the freedom to use whatever word we want, and to ensure that we give them their fullest meaning – rather than curtailing possibilities. I’m not suggesting that you start analysing every sentence you utter, or trying to control every single thought, but I am saying that paying attention to the language you use will have a real and concrete impact on your life and happiness.

What words mean something special or significant to you? When you talk with friends and with loved ones, how can you make sure you’re getting across the meaning behind your words?