Emotional Impact of Language

Challenge your beliefs, explore the emotional impact of language, and gain a fresh perspective on the words you think you know.

Explore the meaning behind words that may not make much sense, like “rude,” “should,” and “perfect.” Discover how these words can shape your perspective and emotions by learning about “nonsense words.”

For a while now, I’ve been thinking the word “rude” doesn’t make a lot of sense.  In fact, I’ve started noticing a few words that we seem to use all the time, that may not really have the meanings (or the truth) that we think they have. 

Nonsense Words

I’m going to share a few of these with you and I’m curious if you’ll start to consider some words that you use (but that aren’t very helpful) as nonsense. 

I truly do not believe that anyone sets out to be rude – like,

“watch this, when I walk in to that store and talk to that employee, I’m going to be totally rude.”

or “if the waitress comes back and tells me they’re out of what Im going to order, I will be so rude to her.”

Or, “my favorite thing to do on a long flight is to see how many people I can be rude to.”

Ridiculous, right? I really don’t believe that people think those thoughts. It’s nonsense! Maybe there are people like that in the world, but I’m choosing to believe that they don’t really exist. 

I choose to believe that people are caught up in their own expectations, so when those expectations aren’t met, they’re surprised, and disappointed, and their reaction may come out bluntly, or harshly, or unexpectedly to the receiver of that message. 

So, my point is, we may view others’ behavior and think they shouldn’t be acting that way, and label the behavior (or even the people) as rude – but they probably wouldn’t agree. 

Maybe after the fact, if they review how the reacted to an unexpected situation, they might agree and say “yes, I shouldn’t have said that, it was rude, sorry.” or after cooling down, they might say ‘’I was being rude, I apologize.”  

But in the heat of the moment, if they are reacting to a circumstance without thinking, without being intentional they probably just think they’re explaining what they want or thought. Or, they’re just showing you their own reaction to a situation they think shouldn’t have happened.

 An example of this is when someone cuts a driver off in traffic. The Driver didn’t expect to be cut off, being cut off represents a threat (either of potential danger- like a possible accident, or a threat of something being taken away, like a place in the flow of traffic), so the driver, in that moment of threat and surprise may offer the other driver an expression of anger – rude, right?

But what does “rude” actually mean? It’s easy to come up with examples of rude behavior – like “she cut in front of me in line” or “I was talking, and he interrupted me to say what he wanted to say.” 

BUT, I can imagine when those scenarios could happen and we wouldn’t label them as rude – like, “she cut in front of me in line because she didn’t realize there was a line.” -that’s not rude, maybe absent-minded. or, “he interrupted me to say what he wanted to say because he was about to go through a tunnel and wanted to make sure to say it before our connection was lost.” That’s not rude – maybe that’s thoughtful!

So we may be able to come up with examples of rude behavior, but my suspicion is that usually, we’re classifying things as rude as things that shouldn’t be happening. We’re seeing it from one perspective within the context that we know about and we’re labeling it as rude. 

But the person who is “being rude” thinks they should be acting that way and they’re looking at their own behavior from their perspective within their context. 

So back to the example of our driver who was cut off – She doesn’t think she’s being rude when she offers that expression of anger to the person who cut her off. Maybe she thinks she’s showing her justified alarm at the threat that was created! Maybe her non-verbal expression of anger is  “teaching” the other driver that cutting people off is unacceptable behavior. 

In a few weeks, I’m going to do an episode for you about how all of our thoughts are optional and we can choose to keep the thoughts that are helpful and how we can replace the thoughts that aren’t getting us what we want. I mentioned some of this in the Concepts that Changed my Life episode too.

But for now, from the examples I just gave about being rude in traffic, I hope you can see that thinking someone is rude is just a thought – it’s not a fact, because not everyone would agree that the behavior is rude.  

So let’s think about if there is a benefit to thinking someone is rude. What do you get when you think the thought that someone is being rude?

My experience is that when I label someone as rude, I’m thinking they are threatening some resource that I think I should have- like my time, my place in traffic, my comfort, my quiet enjoyment, my turn in line, whatever. Or maybe someone’s “rude comment” feels like a personal attack to me – and just to note, I don’t mean attack like they are coming at me with a knife, I mean the things they said cause me to think or believe something negative about myself. 

I’m coming at it from a scarcity mindset. I might feel defensive or miserly because of my label of their behavior.  I’m certainly not feeling open, generous, or compassionate towards them when I think of them as rude. 

So, if labeling someone as rude results in scarcity thinking and defensive feelings – I don’t see an upside. 

But, instead,  if I decide that the word “rude” is just a nonsense word, and I’ll always make my brain come up with another label when someone does something I think they shouldn’t be doing, I now have the possibility of feeling curious, or empathetic instead. 

So, if someone makes a comment about my looks, instead of thinking I’m being personally attacked and feeling defensive, I can think “that’s such an out of place comment for her to make, why does she care how I look? I wonder if she’s trying to get attention? Does she feel like we’re not paying enough attention to her?”

And, if someone leans on their horn near me in traffic and I think I’ve done nothing to deserve that attack, yes, I could think “how rude” or I could think “that guy must have had a hard day” or “that guy must be worried that someone’s going to hit him” and then I don’t feel threatened or defensive and I just go about my day. 

So.. what do you think? Does rude still make sense to you? Or do you think it’s nonsense?

Once I started thinking about this, I realized I consider a few other words in this same “nonsense” category.

Another word that fits into this category for me is “should.”  

Now, there are grammar exceptions to this belief – I’m not talking about the usage when you say, “If we leave the house at 8 am and there’s no traffic, we should get there on time.” – that’s using “should” to describe the likelihood of A following B.  That’s basically just math. 

I’m talking more about when we use the word “should” to describe reality, when it doesn’t describe reality. 

An example of this is: “People should care about other people.”

This example is pretty vague and can be interpreted a lot of different ways – but if this sentence is short-hand for 

“People should care about other people.. And here’s an example of this not happening.” then the word should is being used to describe something that is not reality.

If you have an example of people not caring about each other, then the reality is (at least sometimes) people don’t care about each other. And to say that they should is going against reality. 

I wanted to use a vague example to illustrate it in a non-threatening and non-personal way – so if you followed me through that example, let’s go ahead and get personal. 

Can you imagine yourself thinking or saying any of these types of statements:

My friend should be on time. 

My partner should notice how I’m feeling.

My boss should explain exactly what she wants so I can do a good job.

If the friend is not on time, and you think but my friend should be on time – your thought is going against reality. 

My friend is not on time, but they should be, but they’re not on time. 

The reality is the friend is not on time, and here you are telling myself they should be. They should be something that they are not. 

Do you see how thinking with “should” will lose you the argument? 

Do you see how you are resisting reality when you think in terms of should?

And, what does resisting reality get you? Maybe disappointment? Frustration? Maybe even anger?

One of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite TV shows depicts this in what I always think of as a very heartbreaking way. 

Some people might argue that the best television show of all time is HBO’s The Wire. It’s 5 Seasons of dramatic commentary on different facets of society including the criminal justice system (from the law enforcement and the perpetrators viewpoints), unions, school system and the press. I could probably do a whole podcast series about how masterful this show is- maybe that podcast already exists and I can go listen! But back to this specific scene. 

There’s a top guy in a drug gang in Baltimore called Marlo Stanfield. He walks into a neighborhood shop and in full sight of the security guard blatantly shoplifts some candy. The security guard follows him out of the store and pleads with him not to put him in this position because he’s just a working guy trying to support a family – acknowledging how powerful Marlo is in the community, knowing that to challenge him could result in physical violence or even death. 

Marlo tells him: “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.”

Long before I ever realized that using the word “should” was like arguing with reality, I remember thinking about that scene and Marlo telling someone not to argue with reality. I sometimes even repeated that phrase to myself when something happened at work that didn’t go my way, I’d remember thinking “Oh, I want it to be one way, but it’s not that way.” So interesting right?

Another way to think about “should” is that you could add the phrase “that’s my expectation” after each of those statements. By having an expectation for others’ behavior, you are, in effect, dictating their behavior (at least in your own mind). 

So:  My friend should be on time – that’s my expectation. So maybe you have an expectation for your friend’s behavior. 

What happens if that expectation is met? I’m guessing you’d be happy. That’s cool, except it puts your happiness under the control of your friend’s punctuality. 

What happens if the expectation is not met? You’d be disappointed? Or upset? Again, it puts your feelings under the control of your friend’s arrival time because you’ve put an expectation on how they should behave. 

Here are the other examples… My partner should notice when I’m feeling down. My boss should explain how to do this project. 

Do you hear how those “shoulds” dictate other’s behavior? Do you like your behavior to be dictated by other people? How do you feel about dictating someone else’s behavior in order to control your emotions?

Sometimes I ask that question during coaching, and the client will say “GREAT, I’d love to dictate everyone else’s behavior – that also seems a little like arguing with reality. 

So, if we are living in a world where we only dictate our own behavior, we can learn how our feelings don’t have to be controlled by other people’s behavior. 

By the way.. Our feelings are NEVER controlled by other people’s behavior. Our feelings are only ever controlled by our thoughts about their behavior. 

And good news! We get to choose our thoughts!

Back to the nonsense word “should.” I use this word as a trigger for myself. Whenever I notice I’m thinking it or whenever I hear someone else say it, I do a little mental translation for myself. 

When I hear myself think “she shouldn’t treat me like that” I can notice if she IS treating me like that, and drop the should, and then decide what I want to think about her treatment. See how if I keep the should, I can’t make any decisions because I’m in a place of resistance. As soon as I drop the resistance to what is really happening, I can deal with my thoughts about what is really happening. 

On the flip side of these 2 nonsense words I’ve described,I have another one for you: “perfect.”

Maybe you’re thinking- well, that does have a universal meaning- it’s describing something without a single flaw. Ok, what’s a flaw? Maybe a flaw in your eyes is a beauty mark in my eyes.

One day, as I was still planning to launch this podcast, I went on this long meandering daydream about what would happen after launching, and of course, whenever we put something out for others to consume, there’s always a chance it won’t be someone’s taste or preference. 

I was thinking “If I talk about how my life is so much better now than it used to be, what if someone “accuses” me of thinking my life is perfect, that I’m perfect. (btw, just notice how my fear popped up in this totally imaginary scenario – it even chose a heavily charged word like “accused” – not mentioned, or questioned- that’s interesting, right) – back the the scenario I posed to myself. What would I do if someone accused me of thinking that my life is perfect?

It made me ask myself- do I think my life is perfect? And I realized, in a short answer- yes my life is perfect! Because a perfect life has lessons, it has opportunities to grow and experiment. 

A life of rainbows and unicorns everyday would be amazing (at first), but how would I learn? What would I experiment with? How would I become stronger and more resilient? What would be interesting about that life after the first 3 days? 

So, am I perfect? Yes! I’m perfectly human and my life is perfect because it teaches me and lets me grow and experiment. 

Perfect is “no mistakes” so I know nothing about me is a mistake. 

The same day I had this realization, I met someone in the lobby of a building and had a little chat, and during our conversation I kept hearing myself saying the word “perfect” in response to what he was saying “Oh, you know her too? Yes, I know her- she’s perfect!” Oh, you’re in school right now? That’s perfect! You say your wife is doing great in her business? How Perfect!”

I don’t know if that word just popped up for me during that conversation because of the realization I had that morning- but I noticed as I kept saying perfect.. I really believed it. I do think our mutual friend is perfect! I did think it was perfect that he was in school and it is perfect that his wife has an amazing business!

And, the word perfect reminds me that I can always ask myself the question,  “how is this perfect for me?” when something doesn’t go as I expected. Asking this question opens my mind to possibility instead of assuming something has gone wrong. It helps me come at the situation from a place of abundance instead of feeling threatened or scarce. 

What about you? Do you think you’re perfect? I think you are!

Is your life perfect? I’m sure it is!

Ok- that’s it for this episode. I just wanted to convince you that some words really are just nonsense! 

And now I want to hear your thoughts and your reactions. Do you disagree with any of the words I think are nonsense?  Do you have some nonsense words of your own? I want to hear what they are! Leave a comment below.

My question for you now is do you sometimes catch yourself thinking of the worst case scenario? In next week’s episode, I’m going to tell you why even though we’re so good at coming up with the Worst Case Scenario, we should also practice the skill of imagining the Best Case Scenario. 

This is such a valuable and powerful skill and I’m curious what you’ll think about it.