Mind your language

January 30, 2013 § 1 Comment

I never understood that childhood chant: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” In my experience, names – or the negative words people use at any rate – are often far more hurtful than a physical slight. Just ask that kid at school that everyone called Four Eyes, or Brace Face, or Fishbreath.

The rise of neurolinguistic programming (NLP) in years past takes this issue to another level. In case you don’t know, it’s an approach to communication, personal development and psychotherapy that posits a connection between they way your brain works, the language you use and the behavioural patterns you’ve learned through experience. And essentially, the theory is that if we change the words we use, we can change our thoughts, and then we can achieve specific goals in life.

NLP has been largely discredited as being pseudoscience (more detail on Wikipedia), but it’s become a hallmark of a particular brand of pop psychology. It’s the reason so many people face ‘challenges’ rather than ‘problems’ today, or write ‘assessments’ rather than tests or exams – a linguistic trend that has always irritated me beyond belief. I’m the type to call a spade a spade, and that’s when I’m feeling polite.

And I don’t think that calling an exam an ‘assessment’ removes any of the stress or anxiety someone might feel about the exam in question. I can see some benefit in reframing a problem as a challenge, but sometimes, it’s just a problem, and you should be able to say so. (Also, “a challenge shared is a challenge halved” doesn’t sound nearly as encouraging as the original proverb.)

And then, a weekend or two ago, my daughter attempted to make spaghetti carbonara for dinner, having watched me make it once or twice. It turned out to be a little more difficult to get right than she’d anticipated.

Now, it should be pointed out that carbonara is a deceptively simple dish. You’ve got to time it perfectly so that the hot pasta cooks the raw eggs in the sauce and you get a perfect, creamy emulsion coating the pasta rather than scrambled eggs. She didn’t get scrambled eggs, but the sauce didn’t thicken properly, and needed some help from me.

“Well, that was a fail,” she declared, quite annoyed with herself. I baulked at that. A fail? No, not at all. The dish was almost there – I’ve made many carbonaras in my time, and some have turned out exactly the same way. Sometimes you just get the timing wrong. And yes, I know ‘fail’ is the parlance of the day; I suppose at least she didn’t brand it an ‘epic fail’.

But still – that kind of language must be harmful – to try something once, not get it quite right, and declare it a ‘fail’? It took a fair bit of coaxing on my part to persuade her that carbonara was more difficult to make than it looked, and that she just needed to practise a bit.

Words can be powerful – the reason NLP is still so popular, I think, is because we instinctively know this, although it’s probably something of an extrapolation to think we can change our life’s path by simply changing the words we use.

But we do need to mind our language when calling something a ‘fail’, for example, prevents us from moving forward, or trying something again. That’s when the names can hurt us. That’s when words really do have the power to harm.

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§ One Response to Mind your language

  • Robyn says:

    Our day: exam = stress of scored achievement
    Now: assessment = stress of scored achievement
    The stress is still there, as well as the judgement…

    Like

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