“Minor” Word Choices That Are Revealing

Seemingly minor word choices can reveal a great deal about a person’s state of mind. Here are three examples:

1. Say you hire a woman to come in and run your company. At first, she will refer to the company and team in the second or third person. “You guys should think about this.” When she starts saying “we” and “us” — her use of personal pronouns — you know she feels committed. Also check use of personal pronouns when listening to consultants talk about a client to assess how close to the client they consider themselves.

2. I recently met a serial entrepreneur friend who is starting a new company. I asked him, “What’s the business?” He replied, “Well, the day one idea is….” The phrase day one idea is telling: he knows how often the idea for a business changes over time, and he’s ready for it.

3. In this radio dialogue with Eliot Spitzer and Tyler Cowen on the financial crisis, Spitzer at one point jumps in after Cowen and says, “You’re right, Tyler.” He then moves on to make his point. The implication here is that Spitzer is the arbiter of right and wrong on a complex topic; a more modest response would have been “I agree” or “I think you’re right.” What’s being revealed is arrogance.

These examples are not “slips of tongue” — or Freudian slips — but rather subtle, intentional choices of language.

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There was a meme circulating around the blogosphere a few months back around “superpowers.” The idea is that everyone has a superpower — or some unique skill. Brad Feld’s is being able to sleep on any seat in an airplane, the whole flight.

Mine? Here’s one: after a couple hours of talking to someone I can tell you their favorite phrases and words. Favorite = most commonly used. For maybe my closest 20 friends I can tell you off the top of my head their favorite words. After reading a long book, I can tell you the author’s two or three favorite words. Memory related to language doesn’t, alas, afford superpower reading comprehension or writing abilities. But it does make it easier to connect with someone, inasmuch as I can subtly mirror their vernacular.

15 Responses to “Minor” Word Choices That Are Revealing

  1. David says:

    Re #1: Using “we” too much can actually get kind of weasely and counterproductive at times. Ever say “we should fix this” when you mean, completely appropriately, “you should fix this because it’s your responsibility”?

    Sentiments brought to mind by this post (not my blog) link to teddziuba.com

  2. Ben, a great display of clear-thinking and intellectual integrity.

  3. PippaD says:

    I shall make this brief as I don’t want you to know my favourite words (I worry what they would be!) but I like this post shall try to listen more carefully to those around me!

  4. DaveJ says:

    My favorite example of this: in an interview, asking about a key aspect of the job and the candidate says that would be “fine.” That means they’ll do it if they have to.

    Re favorite words: they change over time; it doesn’t seem to me that it’s a deep insight into someone’s personality or attitudes, but rather mostly just a glitch, like a song stuck in your head.

  5. Chris Yeh says:

    Now I’m intrigued. What are my favorite words?

    Here are a few candidates:

    “Exactly”
    “Gotcha”
    “Excellent”
    “The thing is…”
    “Let’s see what happens.”
    “It’ll be fine.”

  6. Jason K says:

    I respectfully disagree with your point about Cowen. He’s on the radio to tell you exactly what he thinks. It’s often redundant to start a phrase with “I think…” particularly when you’re expressing an opinion. He said it, so of course it’s what he thinks.

    While I agree saying that “I think you’re right” would have been a softer way of expressing his thoughts, does the meaning really change when he says it in such a passive manner?

    I agree, however, that expressing agreement or disagreement,is an effective colloquial tool ;)

  7. Shefaly says:

    Unlike on telly, where viewers can (potentially but not really) unknowingly waste a few seconds looking at a respondent/ interviewee while he composes a reply, this is not an option on radio. Silence on radio is not a good thing. Things like Umm, I think.., etc work as placeholders while the speaker composes a sentence that captures succinctly the point which can be finished without being interrupted either by the anchor or another speaker. These may be redundant but they serve a useful function.

    Relatedly, it is thoroughly interesting from this angle to listen to interviews on German radio. The language has less poetic licence than English, and ideas must be clear before being articulated with the main verb, the various nouns in different cases, the partizip etc in the right place.

    (Now wondering between this comment and the one on Facebook, what words Ben thinks are my habitually abused words.)

  8. I’ve noticed that Gore Vidal has a fetish for the word “equatorial”, apparent especially in his novel about postbellum Washington, 1876. In his writing, it’s usually coupled with the word “heat”.

  9. Yeah, I’m intrigued too. Have we talked enough for you to pick up on my favorite words? What are mine?

  10. Ben Casnocha says:

    We haven’t spoken in awhile, so nothing comes to mind, but I’m sure after
    our next couple conversations if they’re within close proximity of each
    other, time wise, I’d have some possibilities. :)

  11. Anne Johnson says:

    Consider adding ‘accent’, or ‘vowel emphasis pattern’ to vocabulary to enhance empathic listening skills .. works particularly well in societies where education and speech patterns are used as signals about ‘one of us’

  12. Stan James says:

    Sometimes I can catch myself using the same words or phrases repeatedly. This used to bother me, but as long as you are communicating well, it’s not a bad thing to have “trademark” words. It’s part of your identidy.

    I notice this phenomena even more in my attempts to learn German. Once I know someone’s standard phrases, I can communicate with them much easier.

    It’s as if each person (and I think every community as well) settles into a subset of language which they will use. In talking with a new person about a deep subject, much of the conversation is a melding of each person’s “personal language”.

  13. C says:

    all comic impersonators do this (analyze favorite words and phrases) to get there impressions to work. One of the worst things authors do is to have ALL their characters speak in their (the author’s) voice because IRL, the different characters would have their own expressions…next time you watch a Woody Allen movie, notice that ALL the characters speak like him…despite his genius, it has never occurred to him that there is more than one voice out there. :(

  14. C says:

    all comic impersonators do this (analyze favorite words and phrases) to get theie impressions to work. One of the worst things authors do is to have ALL their characters speak in their (the author’s) voice because IRL, the different characters would have their own expressions…next time you watch a Woody Allen movie, notice that ALL the characters speak like him…despite his genius, it has never occurred to him that there is more than one voice out there. :(

  15. Karen says:

    In return, Jason K, I will have to respectfully disagree with you.

    Obviously, in its most literal sense, the words “I think..” are redundant in this context; however, that doesn’t change the social implication. In being so firm by simply saying “you’re right”, Spitzer gives off an arrogant tone. The point Ben is trying to make is that this is a subtlety that reveals arrogance. Spitzer isn’t doing this consciously; rather, his subconscious arrogance is dictating his word choice. In contrast, subconsciously choosing to say “I think…” reveals a more humble character.

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