Language matters

According to many psychologists language is the tool that separates us from other animal life, and may be primarily responsible for human consciousness itself.  What this means in ordinary terms is that language may be the missing link that enables humans to think the way we do, to be self-aware, to be capable of understanding complex concepts as well as concrete facts, and to develop our own maps of reality.

Our ability to learn and use language, to describe the world with it, to conceptualize with it, and to dream with it, is what enables us to create realities that do not currently exist.  To highlight the power of language, consider the following sentences:

“We had a record quarter, but we missed our revenue targets”

“We had a record quarter, and we missed our revenue targets”

“We had a record quarter even though we missed our revenue targets”

Notice the different meanings just a couple of words make in these sentences.

In the first sentence: “We had a record quarter, but we still missed our revenue targets,” the word “but” places the emphasis of the sentence on the second half, “but we still missed our revenue targets.”  The emphasis on the latter part of the sentence makes the sentence overall negative.  It discounts the positive of “We had a record quarter.” 

When we replace the “but” with the “and” in the second sentence, we change the meaning of the sentence.  “We had a record quarter, and we missed our revenue targets,” now places equal emphasis on both parts of the sentence.  The sentence with the “and” is most often interpreted as neutral.  Yes, we had a record quarter, and that is great.  We also missed our revenue targets.  The two statements cancel each other out, although its highly likely that the Board of Directors will want to know how this could be.

Finally, when we use the connecting phrase “even though,” we place emphasis on the first part of the sentence.  “We had a record quarter even though we missed our revenue targets,” implies this is a positive occurrence by emphasizing “We had a record quarter…”  and de-emphasizing “we missed our revenue targets.”  This is the kind of language you would want to use when presenting the quarterly results to the Board or to shareholders.

It is important to understand that the use of different connectors is not only about emphasizing or de-emphasizing different parts of the sentences.  When you choose different words, you literally change the reality you are projecting.   In political terms, this is known as “spinning” reality.  If you doubt how effective words are, just take a look at the radically different views that exist across the political spectrum!

We all live in the same world, but the way we look at that world, and the way we create our own realities, are vastly different.   This is largely a function of the external language we receive and our own internal dialogue.  The language that is directed at us is intended to influence us to view the world in a certain way, while our internal dialogue creates our maps of reality.   The external language influences our internal dialogue, and over time may shift our views of reality.

In the same way, if we are mindful in the words that we use we may influence those around us to see our points of view – to live in our world – for at least a brief time so that we may be understood.   Learning to be precise in the words we use can be the most powerful tool for our success in life.

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