By Chrissie Brockmann, translated by Saveen Uthappa-Eck
According to Bastian Sick, the author of a tongue-in-cheek column on the German language for renowned weekly magazine Der Spiegel, there is a difference between words and wording: words comprise letters, while wording expresses a thought or deeper meaning. This holds especially true in our area of work, corporate communications, where it is essential to understand the exact meaning behind a text in order to accurately reproduce it in another language.
However, the power that words yield is lost on many; it’s this obliviousness that is exploited to influence the reader’s subconscious mind. Finding the right words is crucial – both in our field of work and in everyday life. To delve deeper into this extremely exciting topic, a trip into the world of psychology is well worth it.
The power of words
Have you ever consciously thought of how certain words can trigger moods and memories? For instance, what do you think of when you hear the word “forlorn”? It’s a fascinating word. Doesn’t it evoke true feelings of loneliness and melancholy and somehow leave you with a sudden yearning for your loved ones? Some words can speak to our feelings, if we pay close attention to them. For example, how do the following words make you feel:
Naturally, each of us has different associations with these words. Truthfully, though, how do you feel when you hear the word “work”? Our personal experiences play a pivotal role in our understanding and use of words.
Another example is “have to”. Generally, it implies an external coercion or pressure. And even though it’s loaded with negative emotion, we use it often in our daily conversations: “I have to clean my windows over the weekend” or “I have to go shopping later.” It’s bound to leave you in a bad mood. Let’s try again, but this time replace “have to” with “want” or “would like to”: “I want to clean my windows over the weekend and on Saturday, I’d like to finish my shopping.” Swapping the words unconsciously gives us back the decision-making power and somehow immediately makes us feel better about the chores on hand.
The exact same principle applies to other very negative expressions such as “stressed” or “furious”: if instead we say “busy” or “annoyed”, the problem instantly seems smaller and we subconsciously feel completely different about ourselves. But isn’t it interesting how “not a bad choice” can suddenly become a “good choice” and how much better it sounds if the concert isn’t “only next week” but “already next week”? After all, everything is relative.
Politicians and advertisers, in particular, capitalise on the power of words when targeting their readers and listeners. Or would you buy a brand of Muesli that’s advertised as “perfectly alright”? To be truly effective, adverts need to include at least one superlative. A study by American psychologists Lera Boroditsky and Paul Thibodeau at Stanford University clearly demonstrated the difference that individual words can make. In their experiment, two groups of readers were each given a text on criminality in an imaginary city. Both texts were identical save the first sentence: criminality was described as a “beast” in the first text and as a “virus” in the second. The two groups were then asked to suggest ways to deal with the criminality. The group that had read the first text recommended hunting and imprisoning criminals, and implementing strict laws. The second group, however, suggested examining the root causes, combating poverty, and improving educational opportunities. Both groups backed their reasoning with the statistics provided in their text – which, however, were identical in both texts. I find it both disturbing and fascinating how one word, carefully chosen to describe criminality and for its ability to stimulate our power of imagination, can influence our opinions to such an extent.
No ifs and buts
“I want to visit a friend, but I have to go shopping.”; in other words, I’d actually like to do something, but I can’t. The word “but” manages to completely negate the intent, giving the statement a negative undertone and even leaving a bitter aftertaste. If we substitute the “but” with “and”, it immediately paints a much brighter picture and opens up the statement to possibilities. As we learnt earlier, let’s replace the word “have to” with “would like to”: “I want to visit a friend and I’d like to go shopping.” While the word “but” instantly rules out the ability to do everything, “and” is motivating and offers a possible solution. Bernard Roth from Stanford University believes that using “but” – such as in the example above – offers you no solution and creates a negative perception of the problem. Making a conscious effort to choose positive words not only changes how you feel but also makes a better impression on the person you’re talking to, leaving them feeling equally positive.
“Your words reflect who you are today and determine who you will become tomorrow.”
We can clearly influence not just our own but also others’ opinions, feelings and moods positively or negatively by consciously choosing the words we use. It therefore makes for an interesting experiment if we become more conscious of our own language, use more positive words, and observe their impact.