First impressions? Not only are they a matter of how we look, but how we speak and what we say. Voice, tone, body language – certainly our choice of words – these reveal far more about us than we may realize.
As for communication skills, haven’t we all seen adept politicians use them to their advantage? Likewise, inspirational leaders in any domain, including business. A powerful speaker is a force to be reckoned with. I would say the same for the writer who wields her pen wisely.
A recent article in Time provides food for thought on the issues around language and personality, and indirectly, language and success.
Language and Personality: We Are What We Say
You are what you eat?
Sure. Most of us would buy that – to a degree. So what about “you are what you say” – particularly if qualified by “and how you say it?”
In “What Do the Words You Use Say About You,” Eric Barker starts out by telling us that obscenity can be very effective. Not the most auspicious beginning on his part, if you ask me. Then again, if he wants to grab our attention, he certainly does with that statement. He writes:
Swearing makes you more persuasive.
Then he explains why and cites research. To that I reply… Not so fast. The “positive” impact of obscenity depends on numerous factors: audience and context, sex and age of the speaker, what the speaker (or writer) is trying to accomplish.
Men get away with more than women (let’s be realistic about that); a stand-up comic gets away with more than a marketing executive; a 50-year-old can pull off something a 25-year-old cannot, or quite possibly, vice versa. I agree that swearing can be extremely effective – depending on the circumstances.
Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS)
That principle sometimes known as KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid – apparently applies to our brain’s willingness to parse language and facilitate understanding. Mr. Barker states:
Things that are easy for our brain to process feel more true than concepts that are difficult to process.
Ugh. While that may be the case, I say again (in most simplistic terms)… ugh. Color me critical of that conclusion, even if we assume that it is true.
Doesn’t this encourage us never to improve our vocabulary, never to strive for greater precision through words, never to challenge our gray matter?
While I don’t want to listen to $10 words clearly intended to impress (and nor do I wish to read that kind of copy), again I would say – the circumstances determine applicability. Keeping it simple is relative and complex concepts should be presented in ways that are digestible. That doesn’t necessitate lazy language or oversimplification.
Must we really succumb to the lowest (or lower) common denominator, and “KISS” stretching our minds (and vocabulary) goodbye?
Open Mouth, Insert Foot
Of course, some of us know when we’ve just said the wrong thing – wildly clueless or insensitive, using inappropriate language, or finding ourselves inarticulate after too little sleep.
Some people don’t realize when they are stepping beyond the bounds of convention, much less the words and tone that serve their purpose. That in itself speaks volumes about personality, social ease, attentiveness – and perhaps the person’s background or upbringing.
Can language be predictive of behavior? Can it reflect attitude?
In the case of those oops moments (especially if they’re plentiful), I’d say that’s a definite yes. Otherwise, if you ask me, those who are more sophisticated in their communications may be able to camouflage intentions (and potential behavior), whereas attitude and beliefs may seep out no matter what.
Pronouns and Personality
Certainly, we reveal psychological insecurities (or their opposite). Mr. Barker offers this, which seems informative:
That word “I” can be very telling. Powerful people don’t say it much. Less powerful people say it the most… By the same token, “we” can be extremely powerful. Just saying it can make people feel more positive toward you and create a feeling of familiarity.
Scientific American describes how language and personality are linked, putting great store in “small” words, referencing those same pronouns, explaining:
… When people try to present themselves a certain way, they tend to select what they think are appropriate nouns and verbs, but they are unlikely to control their use of articles and pronouns. These small words [are]… less subject to conscious manipulation… and give us insight into the personalities and changing ideals of public figures, from political candidates to terrorists.
Like Mr. Barker, the writer mentions use of “I, we, my, our” and so on, as examples of style that reveal natural inclusiveness… or its relative absence. (I am now noting my own mix of pronouns, and wondering what that means…)
Does Speaking Other Languages Change Us?
Turning the premise around, for those of us who speak more than one language, what happens when we switch from English to Spanish or German to French? Are we more or less confident? More or less persuasive? More or less analytical, argumentative, reticent, coy?
According to Britain’s “most multilingual student,” Alex Rawlings, in this post on how languages change the way we think, “each language has its own personality” and, as the writer explains:
Each language has its own distinctive way of expressing ideas.
Those of us who have lived in other countries have observed differences in our friends who are multilingual or for that matter, ourselves. I have experienced my own shifts that occur when I speak French, a language in which I am typically more flirtatious. French is more conducive to that pleasurable activity, just as English is conducive to getting to the point.
Once upon a time, I was also more confident speaking French than English, in part because I was more confident when living in France – at various points in my teens and twenties.
I would say that tendency has evened out over the years, though remarkably, there are times when extreme fatigue may compromise my usual (native) English, leaving French unimpacted. C’est curieux, n’est-ce pas ?
Language and Emotions
That culture, education, and upbringing may be revealed through what we say and how we say it seems logical. What about emotional state and attitudes? What is going on when we punctuate our conversations with “sorry” or “maybe” or “just” – diminishing words? Are we conveying a lack of conviction or confidence?
Mr. Barker explains that language also provides clues to our underlying emotional state, including depression. He writes:
… Word choice can predict whether you’re depressed, suicidal or lying.
I’m guessing that our psychologists and counselors are well schooled in picking up those cues, both verbal and non-verbal. As for lying, Mr. Barker’s article offers more details, and we might be wise to pay attention. After all, some people are consummate liars and most of us look to body language as signs. Should we be listening more closely to the nuances of language?
Of course, when we’re angry, resentful, stressed, scared – even when we control ourselves, words may slip out. Eventually, we show our hand.
What Does Language Say About YOU?
Another aspect of language that is closely tied to personality – humor. Naturally, humor reflects culture and we need to take care in what we say to whom – and when. Still, some are naturally funny (and it translates); others are born storytellers.
I have one friend who has a way of phrasing her points just so, generally wrapped in parables and anecdotes that are very much part of her ebullient personality. She keeps her pals and colleagues chuckling – and wins nearly every argument!
The words we choose and the way we use them?
That’s rarely a simple matter, and this is paltry coverage of a huge and fascinating topic. At the very least, we can look to these examples to remind ourselves to pay attention to what we say (and write and text). And I would add – what we choose to keep to ourselves.
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