Hari Patience-Davies shares how choosing the right word can make all the difference.

I was listening to Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness podcast recently and she talked about the effect that choosing the right word had on her daughter’s emotional state. During a recent test the daughter had trouble with one of the questions, and Rubin talked about how important it was to define what had happened. Had her daughter panicked or freaked out? She choose the word rattled – “you were in the test and you saw something you didn’t recognise and you got rattled.”

Rattled is a good choice. It suggests confusion but without the emotional extremity of panic or freak out. Rattled makes the problem feel controllable, and potentially because of that sense of control, the teenager was able to return to the test, realise her mistake and solve it.

This anecdote struck a chord with me. Being able to accurately define how we feel – sometimes called Labelling – is key to understanding ourselves and controlling the more extreme emotions that can hit us hard.

Or as fantasy and sci-fi world would remind us, you have to be able to name the demon in order to banish it.

The language that we choose, the words we use to express ourselves, can tell an audience a lot about who we are. They can enhance or distract from a speaker’s message. People from difference social backgrounds often use different slang. Words age out of use – apparently “cool” is very Boomer and to be in with the kids we should all be saying “lit”. (As someone who recently turned 40 finding out that saying “cool” is no longer cool hit me where it hurts.)

So it’s all important to consider not just what you want to say, but the words you want to use to say it.

As with so much, when you’re planning a speech, it all comes down to audience. Are the people who will be listening to you talk part of your language group, or are you going to have to work on a translation?

Be careful however as you shouldn’t try to adopt the language of a group which is not yours. People who are far beyond their teens trying to use phrases like “bear massive” or “lit” are more likely to be ridiculed than listened to.

We do not want to be the living embodiment of that Steve Buscemi gif:

Instead look for any language quirks you have that your audience might not understand and try to rephrase them in more universally understood words. This is equally true for pop-culture references. Somethings stand the test of time due to continuous remakes and sequels – Star Wars, Spider-man, James Bond – but lots of others become obscure – SpaceBalls, The Tick, Sneakers.

And if you’re using emotional language, be careful when choosing your words. “I’m feeling stressed” and “I’m feeling anxious” might be used interchangeably by some people, but for others “anxiety” is a medical condition and shouldn’t be confused with everyday stress. Similarly, are you feeling worried or concerned? Is your audience hungry or desperate? Should your product be described as ground-breaking or innovative?

It might not seem like there’s a big difference between rattled and panicked – one could argue it’s just a matter of scale. But being rattled by a problem suggests being bothered but not overcome. Panicked is much bigger response, suggesting the problem has all of your focus and is causing you extreme distress.

A problem that has you rattled feels like it would be easier to solve than a problem that has you panicked. And, in this case, it was.


Image credit: Photo by Pixebay on Pexels

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