Our way with words

Greater Kashmir

Words have consequences. They are not just an intermediary between our thoughts and our actions. Sometimes they also have a performative and illocutionary function, which means they constitute an action in and of themselves. We advise through words, promise through words, marry through words and end it through words. Written words may have a lasting effect, but the spoken ones have immediate effects in our everyday social transactions. We humans interact with each other solely through language. Our cognitive and emotional states are conveyed to other people through words. So it’s through words that we’ll be weighed, understood or misunderstood. How the other person reacts will depend to a significant extent on the choice of our words by which we connect with them.

Both being empathetic and gaining empathy are functions of words. One may be sincerely and in earnest empathizing with some person, but one needs appropriate words to express this emotion. Similarly, when we seek to be understood, we must connect with people the way they like and prefer. In order not to hurt others, we must make sure of what and how we talk to them. Consequently, it boils down to the content and form of our sentences. This might seem mechanical, but it’s true. As I said earlier, words are more than strings of letters. I must confess I myself need to cultivate interpersonal skills and learn how to talk to people. At times I have hurt, if not lost, my friends and close ones due to the way I have used words in talking to them. Here, I might be accused of pragmatic inconsistency. How can I talk and preach about something which I myself don’t practice? Well, I suppose I know what I lack, and that is the first step in solving any problem.

Our choice of words doesn’t by itself incur physical injuries, but it doubtless causes emotional injuries sometimes. Daniel Kahneman (2011) has a twelve-page chapter in his book on how our mode of linguistic and social interaction affects the way it’s taken by others. The exactly same information, with the same truth-values, will have as many different effects as the different ways it’s conveyed. It’s best encapsulated in the words, ‘It’s not what you say, but how you say it that matters’. Kahneman calls it the ‘Framing Effects’. According to him, what words we choose and how we put them in a sentence influence our beliefs and preferences. He provides an example of an experiment which one of his colleagues conducted at Harvard Medical School. Logically equivalent statements were put into two different descriptions. The statistics were provided to the subjects regarding the short-term outcomes of surgery as against radiation in treating lung cancer. The results with respect to surgery were put into two different ways thus: 1) The one-month survival rate is 90%. 2) There is 10% mortality in the first month. The majority of the physician participants chose surgery in the former case over radiation. While in the latter case, half of the participants chose radiation. It’s because the words used in these two statements sounded and felt different. To part of our personality, “mortality is bad, survival is good, and 90% survival sounds encouraging whereas 10% mortality is frightening”, says Kahneman.  Now it has very wide-ranging implications on many things including our own behaviour and other states of affairs.

Naturally, how we present our message will determine the kind of reaction it will invoke from other people who may or may not be part of the verbal interaction. Moreover, words also have connotations. Apart from being meaning carriers, they also evoke memories which people may have associated with them, and suggest things which may be painful to them.

Some people can consciously use these framing techniques in swindling and hoodwinking others. Politicians, broadcasters, marketeers and lawyers make the most of these framing techniques. Irrational, horrible and macabre things are disguised in pleasant-sounding euphemisms. Similarly, the market-driven people who are on a selling spree employ these tricks for their own interests. However, there are good frames and bad frames. And on our individual and personal level, we can use good ones for ethically acceptable ways so as not to hurt others or sound mean and callous. Even though sometimes we are required to convey information that might offend the other person, there will always be some phrasing and syntax least offensive and hurtful. So we must weigh our words to be weighed well, and not give way to our wayward emotions. Remember, sanitize the language a bit and frame well.

Ubaidullah Pandit has studied Law and Information Technology. He’s currently doing an MBA.