How to create utopia with words, backed up by science
Children exposed to verbal abuse have higher rates of adult psychopathology. Words alone have been shown to physically alter the physical development of their brain.
This means growing up around abusive words can lead to physical differences in your brain. These differences increase your chances of mental illness as an adult, and make it harder for you to understand basic social cues.
But what happens when abusive verbal patterns become ingrained in society? What happens when a group of people become so desensitized they don’t even notice the violence in their common vernacular?
“The straw that broke the camel’s back”.
You probably didn’t even raise an eyebrow to this casual reference to snapping a spine.
One reason your eyebrows remained relaxed is desensitization. Thanks to the process of desensitization, the more you experience something without any consequences, the less you care about it.
This technique is commonly used to treat phobias, and is the reason people who view violence in an imaginary world like film or gaming have a calmer reaction to violence in real life.
If you refer to breaking a camel’s back around people who aren’t familiar with the phrase, for example in European cultures, the reaction is very different.
“Why would you want to break a camel’s back?” asked a horrified German student. “How could you say that?”
The German equivalent is “Der Tropfen, der das Fass zum Uberlaufen” literally translated to “the drop that caused the barrel to overflow”.
In Dutch it’s “dat is de drupel die de emmer doet overlopen”, the droplet that overflowed from the bucket.
The English phrase, appropriated from an Arabic proverb, first appeared in Thomas Fuller’s Gnomologia in the 1600s.
Where English and Arabic use violence to explain the concept of excess, German and Dutch portray the same meaning with the gentle fluidity of water.
As an English speaker, how many of these phrases have you been desensitized to?
“To flog a dead horse”.
“The pen is mightier than the sword”.
“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you”
Or even simply commenting on someone’s relationship, by calling them “whipped”.
Why all the flogging, biting, whipping and swords?
A few little phrases, what’s the big deal?
The way you use language doesn’t only impact mental illness, but also your ability to take risks and be creative.
A Stanford University study comparing Mandarin and English speakers found that the language spoken caused the speaker to treat concepts of time very differently, because the way time is treated in the language is different.
The study further revealed that language can change habitual and abstract thought. When subjects were taught to speak in a different way, they also solved problems differently. Quite the ripple effect.
Neurologically, ideas are processed based on how familiar and tolerable they are in popular language, and their perceived relationship with other words or images.
Imagine approaching the day like a playground instead of a battlefield. Instead of ‘going head to head’, why not ‘meet eye to eye’? Why does tug-of-war have to be a war?
The take away
Quietly listen to the language you use, even when it’s just in your head.
Now that you’re aware of how important language is, try choosing your words to match the impact you want to have.
Here are some suggestions to get started.
Re-framing anxiety into excitement can directly influence your chances of success.
Ditch the word hard, unless you’re talking about diamonds. Challenges are overcome, slogs end, but hard is forever.
Try recognizing a talented person. Often, we call displays of talent “show-off” to mask our own feelings of inadequacy, or because of an antiquated level of virtue given to being humble. Let the gifted shine.
Put the most important thing first. People-first language positions traits after the fact that a body is human. ‘Person with disability’ emphasizes the human aspect, compared to ‘disabled person’.
Instead of being someone “with” a walker, Cara Liebowits prefers to be someone who “uses” a walker. Changing one word makes Cara sound “much less like my walker is attached to me or following me around”.
Language is powerful.
The words you speak with matter.
The words you think with matter.
How can you use this powerful tool for good?