Words. Do they shape or reflect reality? - THINKERS Notebook

This section doesn’t currently include any content. Add content to this section using the sidebar.

Image caption appears here

Add your deal, information or promotional text

Words. Do they shape or reflect reality?

So many factors influence how we experience communication:
  • Non-verbal cues.
  • Tone.
  • Pace.
  • Inflection.
  • Word choice.

I could go on. But let's linger on that last one a bit.

The words we use impact how we perceive basic concepts more than you may realize -- or certainly more than you regularly consider.

Here is a good example, from this article at Slate by Mitch Moxley:

When the economy is doing poorly, do you refer to it as stalled or as ailing? 

Your instant reaction might be to say there isn't much of a difference. Both are good general descriptions for a troubled economy, right? They make the same general point.

But in reality, the words have subtle but important differences, and the ultimate word choice will likely impact what comes next in the conversation.

If the economy is stalled, then a quick solution, a stimulus, is probably what is needed to get things going again. Give it a jump, like a stalled car, and get it moving again.

On the other hand, if the economy is ailing, then a more long-term solution, like some kind of systemic change, is what will be needed. Just like a person whose health is ailing, some plan for recuperative, therapeutic care will be needed -- maybe even an overhaul in lifestyle or diet.

The point is that words carry baggage, in the form of their actual definition and their cultural meaning.

So when we use a word, we are carrying that baggage into the conversation. And the baggage is often coloring the perception of what is being said, and in turn the reality of what is being experienced, in ways that we normally don't notice without focused analysis.

And this realization should compel us to be mindful about the words we choose and the deeper message we are communicating.

I began thinking about this recently when I listened to this podcast episode. It features a discussion between Ezra Klein and sociologist Eric Klinenberg about the responsibility each of us have to each other and to society during a pandemic situation like what we're going through right now.

And a point that Klinenberg made has stuck with me ever since.

He explained why the ubiquitous term social distancing is inadequate as a description for the collective actions we need to be taking: because it carries baggage that can lead to damaging misinterpretations.

What we actually mean by social distancing is a combination of physical distancing and social solidarity.

  • Physical distancing compels us to stay home as much as possible and at least six feet apart in public to slow down the person-to-person transmission of the virus.
  • Social solidarity compels us to stay connected (virtually, emotionally, and spiritually) so that we can combat the loneliness of isolation; it also encourages people to make decisions for the greater social good, not just based on selfish desire or self-preservation.

The combination of these two concepts is what we need to effectively deal with this pandemic and all of its cascading effects.

Yet, when we smash the two concepts together into one easier-to-say term, social distancing, what we may gain in efficiency of communication we likely lose without the deeper and more accurate meaning we get from keeping both terms in mind. 

That can affect how we view our role and what we should doing, which has consequences. Because if all we do is "socially distance," then we're missing the larger point of what the term is ostensibly trying to communicate.

The words we use impact the way we think, and the way we think impacts the way we act, and the way we act impacts the outcomes we experience.

That is the topic of this week's edition of the THINKERS Roundup. Below, you will find links to three articles that go in-depth on how words and language color our perception of reality.

But first, an invitation from the THINKERS Workshop to practice physical distancing and social solidarity together ...

This Week in the THINKERS Workshop

We hosted our first "virtual happy hour" a couple of weeks ago. It was a success, spawning a number of great content recommendations.

And now we're excited to have another one.

So on Friday, April 24th at 5 p.m. Eastern Time, we'll get together again in my Zoom Room and talk about ... whatever comes up! 

The goal is simple and laid back: get to know each other, discuss whatever shared interests and experiences come up, and enjoy a little connection and camaraderie during these times of isolation. 

If you've never attended a virtual happy hour before, they are quite simple:

  • I'll open up my Zoom Room at 5:00 p.m. ET on Friday, April 24th.
  • You can use the Zoom link below to join.
  • Your video and audio will broadcast to everyone else in the room (see image below).
  • We'll introduce ourselves, get to know each other, and toss around a few fun, interesting discussion questions.

Click here to RSVP and get the Zoom link. We hope you'll join us next Friday!


Now on to this week's links ...

Is language a tool for expressing thoughts, or does it actually shape thoughts?

For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong. Research in my labs at Stanford University and at MIT has helped reopen this question.

We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world.

Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity.

Read: How does our language shape the way we think? (Lera Boroditsky)

Terms and phrases have consequences

How we talk about an issue has ramifications that go far beyond the words.

Names, descriptions, and terms lay the foundation for how we think about an issue, how we deal with a problem — or whether we see something as a problem at all.

Why do we call addiction a “brain disease,” and how does that impact treatment and policy? Is stuttering a “disorder,” or merely a different way of speaking?

Plus, the debate over who gets called “Dr.” and the respect that comes with that title.

Listen: What We Call Things and Why It Matters (WHYY: The Pulse)

You are what you ... say?

Positive words, such as “peace” and “love,” can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning. They propel the motivational centers of the brain into action, according to the authors, and build resiliency.

Conversely, hostile language can disrupt specific genes that play a key part in the production of neurochemicals that protect us from stress. Humans are hardwired to worry — part of our primal brains protecting us from threats to our survival — so our thoughts naturally go here first.

Read: Words Can Change Your Brain (Psych Central)

Quote of the week

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

-- Rudyard Kipling
Photo by Mikechie Esparagoza from Pexels