Words are powerful. They shape how we understand concepts and the world around us, they determine how well we understand each other, and they can influence our beliefs, decisions, actions, and ethics. Language is what allows us to communicate our thoughts and ideas with each other in a sophisticated fashion, so it is no surprise words have such an impact on us and our minds. But you may be surprised to learn the overlooked details and nuances in language have the greatest influence on us: definitions, connotations, and interpretations, to name a few.
Let’s do a quick experiment before getting into the nitty-gritty. Take a look at the following sets of phrases. The phrases in each set refer to the same thing but the words used have slightly different connotations. As you read each set reflect on what each phrase makes you think about and how it makes you feel about the thing in question:
Mobile phone and Cell phone
Bathing suit and Swimsuit
Interrogation room and Interview room
Lower-class families and Low-income families (also Middle-class families and Working-class families)
Drugs, Pharmaceuticals, and Medicines
Tennis shoes and Sneakers
Water and Dihydrogen Oxide
Knife (as a weapon) and Knife (as a tool)
Cottage cheese and Curdled milk
As you can see, your thoughts about each item and concept changed depending on the words used to describe and define them. This is probably nothing new to you given the semantic strides in political correctness over the years. However, there is real power in the way we phrase and define things that can have a direct, psychological impact on us and our lives. And more often than not, that power slips right under our noses undetected and influences us on multiple levels to varying degrees.
A good example of this is the phrase “cheat day” when referring to the one day a week people allow themselves to stray from their diets. Calling it a “cheat day” may make dieters feel guilty about eating, as if they committed some nutritional crime and should be punished with additional dieting and exercise to make up for it. On a practical level, calling it a “cheat day” reinforces the diet by making people believe they are cheating themselves out of a healthy lifestyle. However, it can also make their diets seem strict and unyielding which can cause people to stop dieting in favor of a more lenient lifestyle. By changing the words and calling it a “reward day,” dieters may instead feel like they are rewarding themselves for their good behavior and see their diets in a more positive light. This is operational conditioning at its finest: when people are rewarded for something, they’re likely to repeat the behavior that led to the reward. By calling it a “reward day,” dieters will probably feel better about themselves and their diets because they feel like they’re being rewarded for dieting rather than cheating their diets.
Another example is the difference between the phrases, “neutralizing a target” and “killing a person.” They can be taken to mean the same thing, however the way they are phrased leaves different impressions on those given the order. Soldiers and tactical police officers may feel guilty about shooting someone when ordered to “kill that person” and may not even agree with the order. But if they were told to “neutralize the target” they may feel a little better about what they were ordered to do because it’s no longer a person they’re shooting, it’s a target. And they aren’t killing the target, they’re neutralizing it. The subject becomes dehumanized and instead of sounding like murder, “neutralizing a target” sounds a bit more humane — as if the soldier or officer is simply flipping a switch or eliminating some inanimate threat. There is no blood on anyone’s hands because the target was targeted for a reason, and it wasn’t “killed” but “neutralized.”
Because definitions, words, and ways of phrasing are so powerful, they play a very important role in the social sphere. Contrasting movements and organizations use definitions to structure their arguments and align their beliefs against their opposition. Pro-life supporters, for example, define the “beginning of life” as conception while pro-choice supporters define the “beginning of life” as birth. This is done as a rhetorical appeal to people’s emotions and their reasoning to get them to fall in line with one side of the debate over the other. Moreover, pro-life supporters define fetuses and embryos as human beings (which makes abortion murder), while pro-choice supporters do not define fetuses or embryos as human beings, but as human. The difference? Pro-choice supporters define fetuses and embryos as being biologically human, but not as self-sufficient human beings with protected rights, which makes all the difference in the world when regarding abortion (it isn’t murder, it’s more like removing a humanoid tumor or parasite). An interesting article about the difference between NASA’s definition of “life” and the pro-life definition of “life” can be found here, and an equally interesting article about the language used by pro-life supporters and pro-choice supporters can be found here. To prevent myself from showing bias, the first link is to a pro-life website and the second link is to a pro-choice website.
Also interesting is how these supporters label themselves. They aren’t pro-abortion and anti-abortion, they are pro-life and pro-choice: both words quickly summarize their values — life and choice, respectively — and also contain the positive prefixes “pro.” This second observation is important because as any communications scholar would tell you, positive words and phrases are more influential than negative words and phrases, so people will respond better to organizations that are “pro” something rather than “anti” something.
In the legal arena, how lawyers define concepts and objects can be the difference between winning and losing a case. For instance, during the George Zimmerman trial the defense claimed Zimmerman was using self-defense because he believed his life was in danger. The prosecution claimed Zimmerman was not using self-defense because he was the aggressor and instead Trayvon Martin was the one defending himself. On one hand (the defense’s), self-defense is defined as protecting oneself from the threat of danger by an aggressor and on the other hand (the prosecution’s) self-defense is defined as protecting oneself from the threat of danger by an aggressor. Identical definitions. The difference is the defense labeled or “defined” Martin as the aggressor while the prosecution labeled Zimmerman as the aggressor based on the actions and motivations of both men. They took the same legal concepts of “self-defense” and “aggressor” but offered different interpretations of those concepts in order to sway the judge, the jury, and the public. The power of definitions hard at work.
Slogans and taglines are also good examples of the power of words. For instance, Coca-Cola’s tagline “Open Happiness” versus Pepsi’s new tagline “Live for Now.” Neither of these sayings have ANYTHING to do with the products but have EVERYTHING to do with their brands. Coke is offering happiness while Pepsi encourages you to live in the moment. Your soft-drink preference, believe it or not, has less to do with how they taste and more to do with the feelings you associate with the brand and the words it uses (with some exceptions). Another example is McDonald’s tagline “I’m lovin’ it” versus Burger King’s tagline “Have it your way.” The first ensures you’ll love their burgers and the second ensures your burgers will be the way you want them. Your fast-food preference may very well come down to which tagline you value more (though there are always other factors). Yet another example, President Barrack Obama’s most recent campaign tagline “Forward” versus Mitt Romney’s campaign tagline “Keep America American.” The former suggests progression, movement, and continuance while the latter suggests patriotism, exclusivity, and vanishing American ideals. Both taglines appealed to the candidate’s respective political bases and embody the main message each candidate wanted to get across to voters.
So here’s the takeaway from all of this. Words, definitions, and ways of phrasing things have enormous influential power that can shape everything from our food choices to our beliefs on controversial topics such as abortion. Take the theologies of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. They are essentially the same religion with the same stories and morals and Messiahs. The difference mainly lies in how they distinguish prophets from deities, which arises from how they define prophets and deities. By giving more consideration to the meanings and definitions people grant to words and concepts you will not only be more aware of how they influence you, but you will also be able to resist their influence and use it to your advantage. Most importantly, you will be able to infer the motivations behind particular phrases such as “neutralizing a target” and “interview room” as opposed to “interrogation room,” which can help you determine the intentions of others and their understanding of certain concepts and constructs.
I’ll leave you with some empowering alternatives to common, everyday words and phrases you can use to develop positive mindsets:
Instead of failure try work in progress.
Instead of obstacle or problem try challenge.
Instead of short-coming or fault try opportunity for improvement.
Instead of waste of time try progressive hiatus.
Instead of mistake try learning experience.
Instead of off-track try detour.
Instead of regret try lesson learned.
What do you think about the power of words and definitions? Do you know of any other influential phrases or interesting word pairings? Share your thoughts below!