Thursday, January 30, 2014

Thoughts on language

Have you ever considered the way that language, and the use of certain words, can shape our behavior, and the way we view ourselves and the world? The words we choose to use are powerful tools, which can have unforeseen effects on the people who hear those words. Or perhaps, very foreseen.

Consider a couple examples, starting with "Pro-life" vs. "pro-choice." Whoever coined the term "pro-life" may have been a genius, because that is a brilliant piece of marketing. Most people don't have a problem with the idea of having choices, and the ability to make our own decisions, at least in general. But holy cow, frame it as life vs. choice!? Guess which one will get a visceral response that just says "winner!" Most people will emotionally tip the balance towards "life," (as well they probably should) and say that choice is great, but this time there isn't one. Now, if they look past that initial reaction, they might come to a different conclusion, but that visceral reaction is still powerful, still an obstacle to overcome for anyone wishing to argue for the pro-choice side of things.

Or, let me take one that affected me directly while growing up (although I didn't realize it until years later). I'm smart. I'm not a genius, and have met plenty of people smarter than me (that was humbling at first), but I'm still smarter than average in certain broad areas. Unfortunately, I've not done a great deal with the potential I have. This can be traced --in part, at least-- to what I was told as I was growing up: "You're smart, Nathan."

Well, I somehow got the idea that smart people don't study. New concepts and ideas are supposed to come easily to smart people, which means a smart person shouldn't need to take the time to read, re-read, and take notes, and everything else that people do when they study. A smart person shouldn't need to practice at intellectual skills. A smart person doesn't need to put forth effort.

That's all complete bullshit, of course, but's that the thought that I got into my head without realizing it. I only remember ever hearing how smart I was. I don't remember being praised or encouraged because of my effort in any scholastic endeavors, only in Track and Field type activities where you get those participation ribbons just for being there. As a result, I rarely studied. I rarely re-read texts for school, and rarely took notes that I wasn't required to as part of a grade. When I was forced to study, I always felt that I had somehow failed. I was supposed to be smart, yet I found myself needing to study to understand or remember something. And since I considered "smart" to be a part of my very identity, this meant that I had failed at being me.

How's that for a mindfuck? It was only in my adult years that I started realizing how wrong I was, and that even smart people need to put forth some effort. Ideally, when I was growing up the focus should have been on my efforts, and not just how "smart" I was.* Even today, even knowing that smart people need to put forth effort, I still get a twinge of those old feelings of failure when I study, or when I don't understand something right off the bat. My notetaking and study skills absolutely suck. Rationally, I know better. Subconsciously, I apparently haven't fully accepted that effort matters.

I figured out that problem on my own in early adulthood, and then sometime later discovered that actual research backed up my personal experience. 
According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.

But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.
Google "smart vs effort" for other articles.

All this is a long way of saying that language matters. The specific words we use to describe people and ideas can have effects that we may not recognize immediately, if ever. You can see this when politicians choose their words, and when advertisers choose their words. Or, study some poetry, especially the kind that requires limiting the number of words used. I suspect you'll find yourself paying close attention to the connotations of individual words, trying to get across as much information in as little space as possible.

For myself, if I should ever have the privilege of raising a child, I think I'll be using words like "hard worker" instead of  "smart" when I'm giving them praise.

*Lest anyone think I'm criticizing the people who influenced me as a child -family, teachers, etc- I'm not. I don't think there's any reason to believe that they would have known better, or could have anticipated the results.

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