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There are some expressions that we use routinely without giving them a second thought.
“You’re right about that”
“He shouldn’t have done that”
“She’s a nice person”
They seem perfectly normal expressions used all the time In everyday conversation. It probably seems strange to suggest there’s anything worth looking at with them.
But there’s a problem with these sorts of expressions that has deep impact on our lives, how we treat each other and how we feel about ourselves.
Let’s find out what that problem is, and more importantly, how they affect us as individuals and as a society.
1. WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
The issue comes about when we want to talk about something that’s essentially our preference or our perception, but instead of owning that preference or perception as a subjective, we use objective language to suggest – very subtlety – that what I prefer or what I perceive, is actually independently correct, rather than just something I’d like.
For example “He shouldn’t have done that” essentially describes my preference for a world in which “that” – whatever it is – should not have been done, at least by him. That’s all it is – a preference. It’s not as if I have any sort of superior knowledge of the way things should be. I probably don’t even know the full story – his reasons for doing whatever he did. I only know that it wasn’t comfortable for me, or that I’d have preferred it if he’d done something else. But I’m not using language that describes this as a preference – something like “I’d have preferred it if he hadn’t done that”. Instead, I’m using language that suggests there’s some external truth or moral law that justifies my preference.
It may seem like a small technicality. After all, we all know, if we look deeply and honestly at it, that these things are just what we prefer. Nobody genuinely thinks that only they have the ultimate truth. It’s just the way that linguistic conventions have evolved.
But in the later sections of this article, I hope to show that these linguistic conventions have a very profound practical effect on how we relate to each other and even to ourselves.
But first, a couple more examples.
If I say “She’s a nice person”, I’m saying something about her. But if I instead say, “I feel good around her”, that’s – more honestly – saying something about me. There’s no objective truth in describing someone as nice – I’m just expressing my own experience. So why not use language that is honest about that? There’s a good reason we don’t, which we’ll explore later.
If I say “You’re right about that”, I’m suggesting that I know the correct way that things “should” be, which happens to co-incide with what you said. But if instead I say, “That makes sense to me”, I’m simply speaking about how I – at this current point of my journey through life – understand things and resonate with your words. And that’s actually the limit of what I’m truthfully able to say.
It even operates at the level of speaking about very simple things like our tastes in food. “This pizza tastes great” might sound like an innocent enough expression of our feelings about a pizza. However, linguistically, it’s not an expression of our feelings at all. “I love the taste of this pizza” would be an expression of my feelings, but when I say “This pizza tastes great“, I’m actually extracting my feelings about the pizza from me and attributing them to the pizza itself. I’m making an evaluation about the inherent nature of the pizza and stating this as the truth, rather than owning my response to its nature. But what’s the problem? – Don’t we all know what I mean when I use language in this way? Well, we do, but if I state what I claim to be the truth about the pizza, it means that if someone has a different experience of the pizza, I’ve immediately put them in a position where they’re at odds with the truth I’ve asserted about the world. However harmless that might sound when we’re talking about a pizza, it has a greater effect than we might imagine at the subtle level, as we’ll explore later.
When we use objective language – stating as a fact something that’s actually personal to me – we fail to own our feelings and preferences. We defer instead to a mythical outside authority that we can’t possibly know exists, or if it does, whether we’re right in our claims about what it has decided.
Because, after all, we didn’t come into this world with all-knowing minds that have the capacity to know with any certainty what is objectively right. We did come into the world with hearts uncluttered by judgements that we can look to to find our own understanding of what makes sense to us, and to respect other people’s sometimes different understanding.
The language we commonly use doesn’t reflect this – it focuses instead on the mental aspect – categorising right and wrong according to rules that we assume apply universally and which usually happen to conveniently co-incide exactly with how we ourselves perceive things.
Some people might say that there is a higher moral authority and point to God. To believe in God is one thing, but it’s quite another to claim to know and understand in any level of detail the nature of this God and their preferences, especially when there are other people who look to other sources, or even to the same source but interpret it in a completely different way. We may use our understanding to decide what we feel comfortable with, but making that the “correct” way and imposing that on others is a much bolder thing to do. A person may have a sacred relationship with God, but when God’s will is cited as a justification for what we ourselves see as “right”, we’re going further than we can possibly be sure of.
This failure to explicitly represent own our perspectives and preferences in our use of language may seem like a subtle distinction and pointing it out may seem like inconsequential nit-picking. However, it’s anything but that. It practically affects how we conceptualise the world around us and how we see our own place and that of others within it, and by extension, what sort of world that we are collectively creating.
2. CONSEQUENCES FOR SOCIETY
In the charity I run, Transforming Autism, one of our core values that our team is encouraged to live by is “Perspectives, Not Positions”.
We try to propose our ideas and suggestions not as fixed opinions that we need to defend, but rather as perspectives on what seems to us to make sense, and which can enrich and be enriched by others’ perspectives.
So in a discussion about what to prioritise, rather than thinking “The website should be a top priority”, we might think, “if we prioritise the website, we’ll be able to use it to publicise all this other stuff”. The important thing is that we’re not attached to the suggestion we’re making. We’re offering it to a wider discussion. Others might feel that prioritising different things might have other advantages, and we’d come to an amicable agreement about what to do. It might not always be our first preference, but we respect that more people see things differently.
This attitude makes a huge difference. If instead, we’d been wedded to our suggestion of prioritising the website, then we’d feel threatened as soon as any different suggestion was made. We’d feel our truth had been threatened and we’d feel the need to defend it, resulting in conflict, probable stagnation and eventually a toxic environment.
It’s this position-taking – reflected and entrenched by the language we use – that’s at the root of all conflict and prejudice in society. It’s why neighbours or colleagues fight, it’s why feuds develop; it’s why the courts still use an archaic adversarial system of prosecution and defense rather than collaborative investigation, and it’s why political decisions are so polarising. It’s even at the root of wars.
And the position-taking is facilitated by the language we use, which makes it very easy for us to slip into it without even realising that’s what we’re doing. It’s not immediately obvious, so let’s use the examples we saw earlier to throw a little light on this:
”You’re right about that” is a position. It’s unlikely to cause a problem when I’m agreeing with you, but if I similarly say, ”You’re wrong about that” – I’m presenting what is essentially only my own perspective as a non-negotiable objective truth. It leaves you with no option but to either argue with me or submit to me – or else to assert that what I’m saying is actually only my opinion, which I’m not going to be very happy about because I’ve puffed it up to be more than that. But if I say something like, “That’s interesting. I see things a little differently” and go on to respectfully elaborate in a spirit of exploring together, I’m using my perspective to connect us in a meaningful exchange rather than to make us both feel we’re on opposite sides.
If I say, “He’s a nice person”, it’s again stating something as a non-negotiable fact about him. If you have a different experience of him, and actually feel uncomfortable around him, then in order to share this with me, you need to challenge the “fact” that I’ve imposed on you. If you choose diplomatically not to say anything, you’re likely to feel disrespected by me, as I’ve presented my experience as the definitive one and left no room for yours. But, if I say instead, “I feel good around him”, then you can share your different experience of him in a way that adds to our shared experience and understanding of him. It’s an apparently subtle difference in meaning, and brings about apparently subtle differences in the feelings we experience as a result, but these subtle differences build as they are repeated again and again, and end up shaping our relationships with each other.
Finally, “He shouldn’t have done that” is similar. It claims to have knowledge of the correct way things should work, what others should do and what rules we should all be subjected to. These “shoulds” have no authority behind them apart from what we feel would be preferable, but they’re presented linguistically as if they do have that higher authority, and this is reflected in the attitude that most often comes with them. The only difference between “He shouldn’t have done that” and “I’d have preferred it if he hadn’t done that” – which essentially expresses the same preference – is that in this second version, we’re not claiming it’s anything more than a preference.
It might feel satisfying to think that someone is “wrong” especially if they have committed a shocking act that has caused tremendous suffering. We don’t want to acknowledge that we live in a world where we might be vulnerable to such things. It’s much easier to pretend that our world is safe and that our suffering was caused by an aberration that shouldn’t have happened, and that could be fixed by punishing the person responsible so that everything can be back to normal and we can get back to our illusion of security. So we communicate in shoulds because it makes us feel more secure.
And when we communicate in shoulds, we end up thinking in shoulds, and this justifies our judgements of other people and our imposing our values and expectations on them. We might decide that people “should” say thank you when they’re given something or that they “should” reciprocate a gift or a favour – and because of this “should”, we expect them to do so, and if they don’t (because they perhaps have a different set of shoulds that they live by), we begin to judge them. Judging people can lead to resentment and ultimately to our mentally blacklisting them or punishing them or trying to get “even” with them for the “wrong” we believe they’ve done, which seems perfectly reasonable, because they’ve deserved this by having done something we’ve decreed they should not do.
We end up with a society that’s constantly in conflict as different groups live by different expectations and demands of others – a society that’s deeply polarised and where people are separated from each other by their own positions and judgements. Each person is unilaterally deciding what would make a better world according to their own preferences, but discarding the differing preferences of others. They end up associating with those whose preferences are similar, and regarding others as enemies or somehow at fault; rather than finding ways to build bridges with each other based on our common humanity.
This is the society we’re currently living in, and we’re actively choosing it by the way we allow our language to frame our thinking.
3. CONSEQUENCES FOR INDIVIDUALS
We can’t make this negative contribution to society without negatively affecting ourselves in the process.
While it might feel reassuring to be able to call on some higher authority to justify our preferences, it doesn’t feel so great when others do the same and end up treating us harshly as a result. That doesn’t feel fair or right.
And while we might feel that the higher authority we’re claiming to be on our side adds weight to our preferences, the flip side of it is that we’re actually devaluing these preferences in their own right. When we come to feel that we need to call on this higher authority in order to be credible, then simply talking about our own naked preferences starts to feel weak. There’s a vulnerability to statements such as “I like”, “I’d prefer”, “I feel”, “I want”. With only our own wish behind them, they feel much weaker if we’re not claiming the external wisdom to back up these preferences.
We fear that others will trample all over them, claiming the authority to do so, so the only way we can avoid this is to claim that authority for ourselves. In doing this, we further weaken the value of our own preferences.
And then, even in the slightest disagreements, we become like wild animals fighting for territory and survival. We create a world for ourselves where we need to constantly tussle for validation while denying that very validation to ourselves, and where we build walls around ourselves that prevent us from truly connecting with others.
This does nothing for our self-esteem, of course. If what we want and need has no weight unless it’s backed up by someone or something higher, what does that say about us and our own value in the world? If my preferences carry no value, how much value can I carry? Some degree of low self-esteem is the inevitable outcome, even amongst those fighting and succeeding in subjecting others to their wishes.
We end up subject to the expectations of others – being forced to embrace them or else to fight against them to try to force our own expectations on others.
And also on ourselves, of course. When we take positions like this, we take away our own freedom to develop and change our perspectives and we become forcibly entrenched in our own assertions.
And the final sad inevitability is that we pass these values and expectations onto our children, crippling their prospects of maintaining their own self-esteem from the earliest ages, and imposing on them this world of struggle.
It may seem far fetched to claim that this is all down to how we use language, but I hope I have shown that however trivial it may seem, our choice of words can cumulatively over time only sustain and help to entrench this state of affairs.
4. THE WAY FORWARD
We can’t single-handedly change all these linguistic conventions, but we can make ourselves consciously aware of them, and of the positions that they’re inviting us to passively take up – and of the consequences of this. We might choose to become aware of this while we’re speaking and actively choose what attitude we really want to take.
We might change how we speak and the expressions we choose to use whenever we’re able, and even when we’re not, to make sure we have the inner attitude of not being attached to a position, and that we’re simply offering a perspective so that others can benefit if it resonates with them, knowing that others’ perspectives can enrich and expand our own, and that they may sometimes not be accepted, and not being affronted by that.
We can become more conscious of what our underlying intention is at each moment. Is what I’m trying to say an attempt to impose my truth on the world, or is it simply an offering of something I’ve observed and that others may resonate with or not?
Releasing emotional and other energetic imbalances in ourselves may be a powerful way of enabling ourselves to achieve this.
In this way, we can ensure that our contribution to the world is much more positive and that we’re using what influence we have to reduce conflict and prejudice rather than contribute to them.