This past week I read a story from a writer I admire, Natalie Frank, Ph.D. (Clinical Psychology), who posted a vulnerable story about having a comment she made online taken out of context and used against her in two of her real-world communities.
Your Words Can Do More Harm Than You Realize reminded me of how someone else’s words stole a job from me and the way we choose to talk about other people can have a direct impact on how we’re seen in the world.
How many Donna Barkers does it take to lose a job?
I have a common-as-muck name. Not only are there at least five other Donna Barkers living in my home province—two of them also work in communications. That’s three Donna Barkers with pretty similar looking interests and backgrounds.
About a decade ago I was being considered for a job. I’d done the interview and all that was left was to check my references. When I got the call I’d expected to be a job offer I was told that the references I’d provided were solid and glowing but that the hiring committee had gone beyond my references and was looking at comments I’d made on some social media feeds.
They concluded that the way I communicated on social media would not be a good fit for their organization. I was confused since I’m only ever positive when I post on Facebook, which at the time was the only SM I used. She cited an example, a direct quote from my feed, in which I said some nasty things about another person.
The only problem was, it wasn’t from my feed. It was from one of the other Donna Barkers out there. Those unkind things the other Donna Barker said about a third-party became part of how I was seen by people who’d never met me.
Apparently, when you call someone a ratbag, people think you’re a ratbag, too.
What words describe the people you admire?
The internet is rife with memes and quotes about people being mirrors and attracting the kind of energy we project and being the sum of the people we spend the most time with. But that’s not what came to my mind when I was reading Natalie’s story.
What I thought of was actual research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, about how the words we use to describe other people reflect on who we are—or at least, who we are seen to be.
In “Spontaneous Trait Transference: Communicators Take on the Qualities They Describe in Others¹,” researchers confirmed, among other things, that
“communicators become associated with the trait implications of their descriptions of others and that such associations persist over time.”
What does this mean to people who talk about other people—which is all of us?
It means that when you gossip you become associated with the characteristics you describe. It means that people will ‘transfer’ those characteristics to you.
There are actually two sides to this personality coin. The first is that if someone disses you for “unprofessional behaviour” odds are high that that description will boomerang right back to them and that’s how people will see them—as acting unprofessionally. Perhaps not immediately, but eventually.
The second is that we also tend to project our own personality qualities onto those around us. So when I say that the writers in my community are “supportive, generous and authentic,” I’m saying both that that is who I see in my community and, subconsciously, how I see myself (or want to be seen).
The researchers did four studies in total and concluded:
“Together these studies demonstrate that spontaneous trait transference is a reliable phenomenon that plays a role in social perception and interaction.”
How to talk about jerks without being seen as a jerk
Like many of us, I grew up in a house where I was told, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I sometimes struggle with this ‘golden rule’ since there are lots of injustices in the world that I want to write about and sometimes that requires me saying unkind things about the perpetrators of the unkind acts.
But knowing that when I attribute negative traits to someone else, the reader could very well attribute those same traits to me, gives me pause. As the authors of the study wrote,
“politicians who allege corruption by their opponents may themselves be perceived as dishonest, critics who praise artists may themselves be perceived as talented, and gossips who describe others’ infidelities may themselves be viewed as immoral.”
I certainly don’t want to have the personality traits of people who disrespect LGBTQ rights, for instance, attributed to me by association if I write a story about someone who’s been hateful. And since the reader, who might connect me to the undesirable trait, is not making a logical association, rather a mindless one, according to the researchers, it’s hard to appeal to their common sense.
What’s a person to do? Only talk and write about positive and happy things? Well, actually, that would be a nice change from our regular media diet but a bit too delusionally Pollyanna for my taste. So, here are my own ideas that have not been vetted by the very clever research team that inspired my thoughts.
① Sandwich your criticism between two nice things
One thing I learned years ago when I was working with Alan Cassels, a drug policy researcher, is that pharmaceutical companies are very strategic in how they list the side effects of their drugs. They start with mild or uncommon ones, state the worst in the middle and end on lesser side effects. Why? Because we tend to remember the first and last things we hear and forget what came in the middle.
When writing about someone whose actions you find despicable, you can protect yourself from being painted as despicable by sandwiching your criticism between two positive things about the rotter. For instance, you could start by complimenting them on their passion for their cause and end by congratulating them on their creative information campaigns.
What will people remember? They’ll remember you as being passionate and creative. Which you are for knowing how to do a strategic take-down of a knucklehead. Well done!
② Use descriptive words that can be interpreted by your reader
Since readers will interpret words using their own frame-of-reference, often seeing traits that they see in themselves, using words that can be interpreted in different ways can allow you to state your opinion without being seen as rude.
For instance, I might suggest that the person who left a sexist comment on my story about the lack of support for women writers is a “remarkable individual.”
In my mind, what I’m suggesting is that he is worthy of our attention (subtext, “Can someone please knock this guy from his high horse?”). But calling him remarkable leaves the reader to define in their own mind what I mean. For some it could be impressive, for others noteworthy, and for others perhaps un-flipping-believable.
Since the words themselves are neutral, the interpretation being made by the reader cannot as easily be turned into a negative trait and stuck on me, the writer.
③ Use satire
Here’s a definition from Dictionary.com, “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.”
How could this save you from being painted by the same brush you’re using to write about your nemesis? Well, sadly, satire is so misunderstood that the odds are quite high that the folks who would call you homophobic for calling out a hateful statement about gays will be too confused to read your full article and won’t remember any of it since it was written above their pay grade.
But people who do get it will appreciate your way with words. And, whether they agree with your opinion or not, will likely remember you as being clever.
You are a brilliant thinker and articulate communicator, headed for certain success
I think I’ll wrap it up there.
- Skowronski, John J.,Carlston, Donal E.,Mae, Lynda,Crawford, Matthew T., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 74(4), Apr 1998, 837–848