Why Language Matters
July 4, 2014
It’s easy to overlook, but small nuances of language greatly impact our views and expressions of human relationships.
A few years ago someone I met made reference to one of their co-founders as “my CTO.” I was surprised by the visceral reaction I had to this. I think it was because from the start of Wistia, having an equal relationship has always been important to Chris and me, and I know it would upset me for him to refer to me like that.
Since then I’ve found myself paying close attention to the way people describe their relationships, specifically, how subtle differences in language can provide great insight into how people think about their company and coworkers. It’s a peek into the subconscious mind.
I’ve rounded up three illustrative examples that show the influence that small changes in language can have.
“You” vs. “we”
If someone is working at your company and refers to the company as the collective “you” instead of saying “we,” they’re leaving themselves out of the picture and don’t feel like they belong yet. That’s no good! When you’re part of the group, you’re much more likely to act in the group’s best interests.
When someone joins Wistia, we try to get them from “you” to “we” as quickly as possible. Some people pick this up almost immediately, but for other people, it can take months. I think this is a great example of the language you use having an affect on the way you think. If you say “we,” you feel part of the “we.” I make a conscious effort to correct people here when they say “you.”
Sometimes I think I’m overly sensitive to this stuff, but I was pleasantly surprised a few months ago when someone here interrupted a presentation and informed the presenter that he said “you” instead of “we.” Music to my ears.
It makes me uncomfortable when someone describes someone they work with as if they possess them. For instance, imagine an engineering manager talking about their team and referring to its members as “my engineers.”
This language segments the manager and their engineers from the rest of the company. “My” defines an exclusive relationship: my husband, my car, my house. It makes it sound as if these engineers only serve this manager and no one else in the organization.
Possessive language like this is the enemy of a highly collaborative work environment. It promotes a strict hierarchy and isolates groups from one and other.
Why not say “our engineers”? “Our” conveys that we are all on one team and working toward common goals.
Are you the CEO at your company or the CEO of your company?
If you’re “at” a place, it implies transience. You’re at the pool. You’re at the beach. You’re just there for the moment. If you’re “of” a place, it is part of who you are. You’re Earl of Sandwich; you’re Jesus of Nazareth.
It’s especially pronounced when someone is a founder of a company. For instance, if my title is “Founder at BizCorp,” it sounds like my job is to found companies, and the latest thing I’ve founded is BizCorp. I’m like that guy at the party who is looking over your shoulder for someone more important to talk to while we’re having a conversion.
I don’t think people who use language like this are bad people or are ill-intentioned. Often the words we use are a product of our environment, and we repeat what others around us say without giving it much thought.
But I think it demands more thought. Tiny changes in the words we use can have far reaching consequences and express substantially different things. Language matters.