Sound as Clever as You Are

How the words we use shape the way we think – and what others think of us.

Roy Everitt on marketingThe language we use every day has a clear impact on the way we think and the way we are able to think. Everyday language shapes our understanding of the world and the way we communicate with others affects how they think about us.

Here’s a very simple example: in winter, the temperature will often fall ‘below freezing’. By this we mean below zero degrees Celsius (or 32 deg F). In fact, there’s no such thing as freezing point, since pure water can stay liquid a long way below this temperature – as low as minus 30 degrees C. On the other hand, water ice can’t exist above zero deg C for more than an instant. So, what we call freezing point is actually the melting point of water ice. We should really call it ‘melting point’.

If you didn’t know that about water and ice, the common term ‘freezing point’ will have been misleading you your whole life…

Now, that might not sound important, but it is if you’re a pilot in sub-zero cloud, whose wings are icing up as the cloud droplets freeze on contact with your aeroplane.

And think about all the other things we might say or hear every day that aren’t factually correct (or are at least debatable). If we say ‘God willing’, for example, do we meant to tell people we believe in God? If someone else says it, do we assume they’re believers? Or do both we just mean ‘with a bit of luck’? This may or may not matter to you but it’s vitally important to millions, if not billions, of people around the world.

When we speak or write we are often saying much more than we realise. People gather information, right or wrong, from the words we use and their opinion of us can be affected by the phrases we employ without a thought.

As annoying as it can be, having someone challenge us on our choice of words and phrases, even on the assumptions they imply, can be a very good antidote to lazy thinking.

Your language doesn’t need to be complicated or clever to be accurate. But it does need to be carefully chosen to be as clever as you are.

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