How do we use language?

There are probably a million and one ways to say something. But how do we decide how to say something? How we speak to our family and friends is often different to how we speak to people at work.  At work, we may speak differently to different audiences – our service users/patients, our colleagues, our managers.   We also use jargon – this can be helpful in precise communication with someone who speaks the same jargon.  In academic contexts, we can use less frequently used words and express ourselves in a different more complex way with longer and more complex sentences too.  This may support the clear expression of complex ideas (or it may not).

Management speak has its own terminology and there are words and phrases that come in and out of favour.  One of my reflections over the years has been that we should have a new glossary telling us what words to use for our service developments/business cases.  I’m not sure who would provide this now – Department of Health, NHS England…? This may seem unduly cynical but sometimes it is just practical to use language that resonates with the audience you’re trying to influence. 

Then there are corrosive uses of language – abusive, belittling language – we can probably all think of examples.  We see the effects of this use of language in the people we see in our clinical work – some of whom will have experienced this.  We may see it at work in poor behaviours in colleagues in whatever role they have and the impact in can have. 

The use of language in describing groups can also indicate conscious or unconscious bias – labels to describe particular groups – ethnic, gender, socio-economic, religious etc. 

There is also language used to intimidate – labelling concepts, using jargon and labels to create a position of authority.     Language can also be used to demonstrate superiority – the use of less common words in the language e.g.  using dissent instead of disagree was a recent example I noticed Using phrases from other languages (e.g. French, Latin) can also be used to do this.  It is not necessarily a more accurate use of language but it can create the impression that the speaker is cleverer and/or more educated.  Language can create barriers, be used to abuse and reinforce or create power differentials.

We hear language everywhere – in person, through traditional media (TV, radio), social media and it may be one of the things that defines us humans.    We interpret a lot from language about the speaker (whether written or spoken) but what do we do with it?  In our roles as psychological professionals, we seek to understand our service users/patients and help them interpret their world and change it. 

We don’t always do this in other settings and sometimes it can feel too challenging.  I’ve become more and more conscious of the need to listen carefully and check my understanding and assumptions – especially if I don’t like what I hear.  It feels really important to be aware and reflect on how the use of language can bias our thinking and reinforce our assumptions.   It feels important also because of the increase in communication tools – emails, texts, social media (especially where there are predetermined limits on text length).  And that’s alongside all the other parts of how we try to comprehend others – non-verbal communication, physical gestures and accents….

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