…because some thoughts are worth remembering
Because language is culture and culture can shape your thinking, I watch my use of certain words to make sure I mean it, and to avoid certain words to reframe my thinking.
In performance reviews and other evaluations, I do my best to avoid the words “never” and “always” because it’s rarely true that something is always or never that way. All it takes is one example to negate the statement. Is Sam never late? Really? Instead, I think back to why I would want to use these extreme words. I feel that Sam is never late, and that makes me trust Sam more, which leads me to a different task assignment scheme than if Sam were not punctual. Then I emphasize the subsequent thoughts, which is more valuable a feedback to Sam than being told about a potential characteristic. I find other superlatives and exclamations can make me lazy about truly understanding the value of whatever I am describing, and often not as helpful for the other person I’m communicating with. What does it mean for the report to the “excellent” or “the best”? Is it graphically appealing so readers will be engaged? Is the writing clear and succinct? Did it complete on time and on budget? Will it have more potential than persuading the policy makers than the previous report?
Other words constrict my thinking. They tend to undermine the full potential of whatever I’m thinking about, words like “try” (which I already discussed) and “should”. Should and ought assume there exists some Platonic or canonical form, the “right” answer to which we need to strive for. While it may be true at times, it is important to examine what emotional, societal forces have gotten us to use these words to describe our situation. It can lead to naturalistic fallacy, the confusion of “is” with “ought”.
There was much negativity in the air during one lunch conversation where genuine concerns by colleagues were not getting through to one individual. To get her to stop the spiraling of non-constructive thought (and hopefully have some emotional room to feel others’ compassion), I asked her to keep going with her story and our conversation without using the word “but”. It was incredibly tough for her, which made her and the rest of us realize that the word is a defensive shield to proactively reject any premise laid down by you or others. For example, if you say “I am appreciative of x, but…”, are you really appreciative? What if you use the word “and” instead. What changes do you have to make to the statement while still being truthful to the situation? Starting with “I like the report, but it’s too long” to “I like the report, and so to make sure the great points come through, can we make it shorter?”
Using the word “but” results in a shorter sentence, though is it better? The use of the word “and” can lead you to construct a statement that is more instructive (not pointing out what’s wrong but what you would like to see).
When I am in a negative funk, a simple (but tough) exercise is to see how long I can go without completing sentences using the word but (i.e., it is ok to think the word but, as long as you reframe it as an “and” before the sentence is completed in your head).
Photo: A Library and an adjacent building whose facade has been modified to look like giant books loved by the French, Aix-en-Provence, France.