Language feeds what we believe, which shapes what we think and feel- let’s take back control!
Have you ever thought about the words you use, the information you absorb and how you make sense of the world around you to shape your beliefs? It may seem that what see and hear and how you learn and feel is the same for everyone, but it is not. Our brains build up snippets of information through words – spoken and written- and this builds a picture for us that we do our best to put meaning to. Each of us has a different picture. By getting to know our own picture we can refine it by re-skilling ourselves in new words, new information and new beliefs. This post will share some of the ways we are unconsciously influenced and how we can take back control.
The power of language
You may think words are simply a way to communicate something to someone else, but they are much more powerful than that. Words shape how you think. Most people know techniques such as thinking positively to feel better about something. Many of us have also been around people who spend all their time complaining, and by the time we leave we feel exhausted and fed up! Words can affect us greatly. But it’s far more complex and fascinating than simply a word influencing your feelings. Different cultures and languages show us that people work out problems and experience the world quite differently based on their native tongue. In other words they have different conceptual maps for working things out.
For example, if you were to ask someone in English how to get somewhere you would likely point in the general direction, maybe state a few landmarks to look out for, say left and right for turnings. Yet there are cultures in the world that would not be able to follow those directions, even when translated to their language. You’d have to make up a whole new set of words for them and teach it to them. In their language they only use north, south, west, and east, even when pointing out objects on a shelf. These cultures have a built in way of knowing which direction they are facing. You could place them in a strange place and they will immediately be able to stand in the cardinal direction you ask them to (south, north, west, east), even without landmarks or the sun.
Such cultures share exactly the same brains but they use different sources of information to build alternative ways of using their brains. The way their language has been constructed allows them to ‘see’ things other people cannot. Language shapes the way we mentally see, feel and exist within the world.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
So words used within our own culture have shaped and have been shaped to fit the way we see the world. So how does this relate to beliefs? Well even in the same culture there are different uses of language, where people use language based on their peer group and learn new words from them. We are always inventing new words, new experiences, and these continuously shape the way we think. Some people have more formal education, others more life skills; some people use more than one language and are part of multiple cultures. The variations create different ways of thinking and form variation in our beliefs. These may be global beliefs such as stereotyping a particular group of people, or the way we make decisions each minute. For instance, the way you respond to a person approaching you will be influenced by their belief about what sort of person they appear to be, and what experiences you have had before.
Stereotyping can be good or bad, about other people and about us. For instance, if you believe you are born with intelligence then you may not bother to try and learn new things- you either can or you cannot. The people you connect with, the work you do, the decisions you make are because of your beliefs about yourself and about other people. This is enhanced when we speak in certain ways. If we describe someone as if they are their actions, and not separate to their actions, we are likely to value them differently. For instance, “Tony drinks alcohol”. This tells me something Tony does, an action which is transient but doesn’t define him as a person. But if I said “Tony is a drinker”, then that’s telling me something else. It tells me I have labelled him, which is more likely to lead to me judging him as a particular type of person. I will then place Tony amongst my other pieces of knowledge with other people and experiences I have collected of people who are drinkers and that will influence what I think. Whereas using a verb, where someone does something, this is less likely to lead to such value-laden labelling.
Feeling good, or not so good
All of this is linked to how we feel. When we interpret the world, other people, the words that are said, it affects how we feel. So if you want to feel good about yourself, about life, and about other people you need to use words, have beliefs, and think in ways that enhance that. Are your words serving you well?
Helping yourself to help others
So what’s your story? What are your beliefs, how do you use language, how to you perceive the world? Have you learned any new words lately? Have you read any new books, found out something new, enhanced your own knowledge? You’ll be able to tell by my writing that I am someone who believes we can learn new things, we can re-shape our own beliefs, use words in a way that shapes our thinking (like using kinder words to others means I feel kinder too). Start with yourself. Pay attention to your thoughts, your words, your actions. Then make small conscious shifts in the parts you’d like to change. And here’s the really good bit. We influence those around us, so once you have shaped yourself, start shaping other people’s beliefs!
Boroditsky, L. (2011). How language shapes thought: The languages we speak affect the perceptions of the world. Cognitive Psychology
Haslam, N., Bastian, B., Bain, P., & Kashima, Y. (2006). Psychological essentialism, implicit theories, and intergroup relations. GPRI, volume 9(1)
Hoemann, K., Xu, F., & Barrett, L.F. (2019). Emotion words, emotion concepts, and emotional development in children: A constructionist hypothesis. Developmental Psychology, volume 55(9)
Walton, G.M. & Banaji, M.R. (2004). Being what you say: The effects of essentialist linguistic labels on preferences. Social Cognition, volume 22(2)
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