Like nature, our language is always in flux.
Words matter bigly.
And as we’ve learned from the relatively new field of social neuroscience, words also can serve as weapons, often more forceful than sticks and stones.
The traditional children’s rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones. But words will never hurt me.” is a fallacy.
In a nutshell, the brain uses similar circuits to handle both social and physical pain and pleasure. They bear a resemblance to one another with one big difference: We tend to forget the physical pain over time, but social pain remains. (For more about the science, check out Is social pain real pain?)
For some people, the perception of the social pain’s intensity actually increases over time. For example, a friend of mine who tripped on a sidewalk three months ago can’t remember what his banged-up knee felt like afterward, but he can describe with photographic detail how a boss of almost 30 years ago criticized him for being “too positive.”
Social pain is real and has implications on work performance, as explained in this Forbes post, Why social pain hurts your workplace performance (and how to avoid it).
Since words can disengage, demoralize, threaten, bully, and harm in other ways, how do you use words to connect with and inspire others, rather than hurt them?
First, recognize that the words you use make an impact on individuals, based on their personal relationship to you, their current mindset and mood, their current physical state, all their life experiences, and anything else that could be affecting them in the moment.
Second, remember that individuals may not be fully conscious that they initially react viscerally to your words, without thinking. We’re hardwired to react in that order. People with stronger emotional intelligence can generally check their emotions without feeling hijacked, but it can be hard to control our response to hurtful words. And when someone experiences a “freeze, flee or fight” response and acts accordingly, their workplace performance could suffer, which doesn’t help anyone.
Third, commend yourself for acting responsibly and carefully considering the words you use. You won’t be perfect—none of us are—but you’ll be a better communicator. You’ll be inspiring rather than intimidating as well as uniting instead of dividing co-workers, teammates and the workforce at large.
Fourth, regularly revisit the words and phrases you use to make sure they’re still appropriate and not outdated. Before you’re going to have a difficult or sensitive conversation, think about the individuals you’re conversing with or writing to, and consider what words will resonate better with them. Also, if you’re not sure, or you want ideas on which words to avoid, take a few moments and ask others for guidance.
As an example, “speaking truth to power” was one of my favorite expressions for a number of years. Now with the #metoo movement in full force, the simpler phrase “speak up and out” is more straightforward and avoids reinforcing the power imbalances that exist between executives and everyone else.
Another outdated saying is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Often people utter this saying without stopping to question whether they or anyone has checked to see if the policy, process, procedure or whatever they’re referring to is still effective. These days rather than blindly assuming that past practices are worth keeping, it’s better to question the status quo.
My nomination for a deceptive word is “perfect,” especially when people use it to acknowledge a small task well done. How do they yet know the execution was “perfect”? Plus, the act of telling people their work—and by extension the individual—is perfect encourages us to be content with what we’ve done rather than strive for continuous improvement. Here’s hoping “perfect” will lose its popularity soon….
These are just a few terms high on my list for the recycling bin. The runner-ups include men in a mixed group saying “just us girls” and calling other men “Mr. X,” both of which imply men’s superiority over women.
What words or phrases do you think merit retirement, especially to avoid hurting others?