The Power of Words
I almost apologized for the delay in this week’s essay.
“Know how to listen and you will profit even from those who talk badly.” — Plutarch, c. 100
I’m fascinated by words — their origins, their evolution, their meaning.
It’s one reason I was excited (probably unhealthily so) when Benjamin Dreyer released Dryer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.
Dryer is the copy chief of Random House, and in an anecdote in the book, he gleefully wrote about an epiphany that a first-time memoirist had regarding his profession:
“‘Copy editors,’ she intoned, and I can still hear every crisp consonant and orotund vowel, all these years later, ‘are like priests, safeguarding their faith.’”
Like Dryer, I take words and phrases seriously.
If you like words, make sure you’re signed up to receive our “Off the Clock” newsletter, just for word nerds.
Words have the power to coerce and the power to soothe. The power to call to arms and the power to unite. The power to motivate and the power to demean.
It depends on what you want to use them to accomplish.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
”The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
”The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” — Lewis Carroll, 1871
The words you choose say a great deal about you. Your go-to phrases and reactions are a split-second scan of a part of your personality.
The stories you tell (and retell) show what kind of a leader you are: self-deprecating remarks show that you like to put people at ease; accounts in which people constantly call you "sir" denote a need for approval; childhood memories indicate a fondness for nostalgia or shared values.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt found the polite small talk of social functions at the White House somewhat tedious. He understood how overwhelming the experience could be for the common citizen, and he maintained that those present on such occasions rarely paid much attention to what was said to them.
To illustrate his point, he would sometimes amuse himself by greeting guests with the words, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The response was invariably one of polite approval.
On one occasion, however, the President happened upon an attentive listener. On hearing Roosevelt’s outrageous remark, the guest replied diplomatically, “I’m sure she had it coming to her.”
Roosevelt was used to being in a position of power, so in social settings, his words seemingly didn’t matter. The advantage was his, as illustrated by his playful use of words to entertain himself. His guests were at a disadvantage not only because of the impressive setting, but because who would be able to verbally spar with FDR?
Except for that one guest who turned the tables, of course. With that remark, the power was in the hands of the visitor, and FDR’s amusing pastime was revealed.
We can all think about situations in which we might find ourselves and make small changes to how we phrase things, in order to shift the balance of power.
I was late in getting this essay out to you this week; I could have easily expressed it as: “Sorry this is late” or “Sorry for the delay.” You’ve probably begun hundreds of emails that way, right? But in doing so, we weaken our own position.
Now don’t misunderstand me; apologies are great. In fact, we could use more (and better) apologies.
When you apologize for being late, you’re making it about you. Instead, we can assert our leadership skills by making it about the other person by saying this magical phrase:
“Thank you for your patience.”
Hear the difference? You’ve admitted your own tardiness, but at the same time you’ve acknowledged the sacrifice the other person has made.
That simple change in word choice has shifted the power.
Similarly, when it comes to dealing with death—something many of us find awkward—we find ourselves at a loss for words. If someone tells you about the death of a loved one, instead of saying "at least they had a long life" (not much solace in that) or “they’re in a better place” (an assumption), you might say:
”Thank you for sharing that with me.”
We can’t always ease the pain of others, but we can help them feel comforted by letting them know they have someone to share things with.
We’re accustomed to using favorite sayings or blurting out whatever is easiest to say. The next time you’re in a position to do reply to someone or offer an explanation, take an extra five seconds or so and consider the words you use.
Your power to choose can be beneficial to both you and your conversation partner.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.