The way humans communicate is a very inefficient process called language. We don’t think about the miracle of speech very often but the way it works is pretty incredible. I have no better way of expressing it, so let’s quote the great Tim Urban:
“The next time you’re talking to someone, I want you to stop and think about what’s happening. Your brain has a thought. It translates that thought into a pattern of pressure waves. Then your lungs send air out of your body, but as you do that, you vibrate your vocal chords in just the right way and you move your mouth and tongue into just the right shapes that by the time the air leaves you, it’s embedded with a pattern of high and low pressure areas.
The code in that air then spreads out to all the air in the vicinity, a little bit of which ends up in your friend’s ear, where it passes by their eardrum. When it does, it vibrates their eardrum in such a way as to pass on not only the code, but exactly where in the room it came from and the particular tone of voice it came with. The eardrum’s vibrations are transmitted through three tiny bones and into a little sac of fluid, which then transmits the information into electrical impulses and sends them up the auditory nerve and into the brain, where the information is decoded. And all of that happens in an eighth of a second, without any effort from either of you. Talking is a miracle.”
So talking is a pretty sophisticated evolutionary selection, one that has enabled humans to surpass any other species in terms of impact on the biosphere. Because we can talk about our plans and ideas and expand our intelligence across generations and individuals we were able to dominate the planet and claim it for our strange purposes.
At the same time though, the transmission rate of information is pretty slow. Compared to how fast we think, articulating the same information using language and making another person receive exactly the right information is difficult and slow.
Transmitting information accurately requires the person speaking using the right tone and language and the listener to be attentive, hear and interpret the words correctly.
This is hard enough already. Due to the achievements of Edward Bernays, who invented the discipline of public relations, we have perfected the use of propaganda in the 20th century. Watch a great documentary about Bernays.
Bernays started in the beginning of the 20th century to use the research of his uncle Sigmund Freud to change the quality based marketing of the time into peace-time propaganda. By appealing to people’s innate desires instead of the merits of the product, emotions became the primary motivator for purchases instead of rational thinking. This is very much still the way marketing works to this day, because it works. Language conveys information but also emotions. Most of our decisions are made with our ‘gut-feel’ – emotions. Using the correct language is much more important than we expect.
The first thing that authoritarian governments do is to try and manipulate the language. This is a way to get into the minds of the population and manipulate emotions. Viktor Klemperer recorded the subtle manipulations in his landmark book LTI- the language of the third reich. The Nazis deliberately loaded words with manipulative connotations and described jews with emotionally laden adjectives, to degrade their humanity and make their horrific program more acceptable to the rest of the population
A similar theme gets explored in George Orwells novel 1984 with Newspeak. This is why political correctness is such a dangerous weapon and freedom of speech is a human right.
Watch your language
Manipulative language is invasive and dangerous, especially if we adopt it without realising what we are doing. I have been bothered by some words regularly used in my workplace and just recently realised how manipulative language can be.
When we use the word ‘resource’ when talking about borrowing our co-workers time to help us out on a project, we are degrading that person to a mere number in a calculation. Calling people “resources” reduces them to their economic value to the capitalist. It’s harder to value their possible contributions in terms of creativity, ideas or intellectual capacity. This language influences the way we think and feel about that person, if we intend to or not.
At some point in time politicians began to refer to their citizens as ‘consumers’. This started the slippery slope towards dehumanisation of the economy and towards “increasing consumer spending” as the single goal of entire nations. Don’t we as humans have other characteristics worth mentioning? Aren’t we producing any value beyond the crap we buy?
Especially rife with manipulative language is the real estate and development industry.
One word that really upset me when I heard it for the first time is ‘product’. Similar to industries that make actual products, real estate people (urban planners, designers and others) refer to people’s homes as ‘product’. First home buyers make the biggest financial decision in their lives, indebt themselves for decades and we refer to the house they buy as ‘product’. Of course we are not going to care about how it connects them with their neighbours, how they feel when they see it or when they walk in and out of it every day. We can’t imagine what it’s like to look at the same grey wall again and being angry because the lawn doesn’t grow on the western side of the house, when we refer to the place their children grow up in as ‘product’.
A home is different to a corkscrew! A corkscrew is a product! You use it to open a bottle of wine. The house that your family lives in fulfils a basic human need for shelter, it’s a physical representation of your dreams, desires, hopes and the reward for the vast majority of your productive time in this life. It’s not just a ‘product’!
If we want to communicate our message clearly and be heard without being misinterpreted we need to be able to articulate ourselves in a way that doesn’t distort language. We need to speak honestly and truthfully, and use words that represent the full spectrum of humanity and make us compassionate and wise in the long run.