How Words Influence Our Perception

“Beautifully crafted words have the power to captivate the mind of anybody.”

- Sam Veda

Words are formed to communicate. Words consist of sound and vibration. Often, these sounds and vibrations of words tend to create a wider impact than the actual meaning of the word. For example, the word “debilitate” simply means “make weak” but is our perception towards these words the same? Even when you observe the terms used in medical studies, they have a difficult sound which makes us believe that studying medicine is difficult, no doubt it requires hard work but is it some rocket science? Heart Attack is termed as “Myocardial infarction” in medical terms. Its complexity to pronounce and unusualness makes it look like something huge. Also, these terms are not spoken frequently as people are more accustomed to talking about their daily life.  We often find a lot of words difficult to pronounce and we often assume that the one who pronounces them correctly knows about the subject. 

Sometime back, my sister was planning to backpack across Europe. She said she will be “Hitchhiking” in Europe. Whenever she said that people around, thought of her as a very cool and an adventurous person. But had she used “taking a lift”, would the impression be the same?

In the book “Predictably Irrational”, the author talks about the effect of expectations. He talks about Culinary Sensations, a US-based caterer’s description of food, which goes as follows “mélange of the freshest aroma cherry tomatoes and crisp field green, paired with a warm circle of chevre in a fruity raspberry vinaigrette”. Words like cherry, warm, crisp, fresh increases our expectation of the food and make us comfortable with the high price on the menu. So I can sell you a diary telling you to write about your beautiful memories and thoughts on the same, and sell it to you for Rs 1500 as the papers are “Handmade” where you will not consider the fact that you don’t need handmade paper to pen down your beautiful memories.

Words have immense power to change the perception of the outsider if placed rightly. For example, a person with a background in finance will use terms such as long and short instead of buy and sell as it might give others the impression that he understands finance. Making a term sound difficult can be a way to make oneself more employable, which means usage of certain words creates a trust among the public. People basically tend to accept things which they are not aware of or haven’t heard of. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have spoken about the power of information in their book called Freakonomics where they talk about the price of term insurance falling dramatically when the internet came into the picture. Before the internet, people were not aware of the price of term insurance products and therefore relied on agents. This asymmetry of information made the insurance agents charge more which plummeted with the advent of the internet. Similarly, usage of certain words basically shows that you know what they don’t. And then when one uses such terms, which are alien to the general public while making them understand the rest of the sentence, you have gained their confidence.

Th choice of the words can also create an emotional impact. In a paper named “Words and Perceptions: Therapy or Threat” K.N.Johnston and M.T Williams have pointed out the relevance of words used by physiotherapists in curing patients wherein words having the same meaning can have a varying emotional impact on different patients.

But can these words have an impact on one’s own self?

There has been research on the impact on your own self when you use certain words. In an article “Language has the power to make the invisible appear real”, the writer talks about the power of “Yes”. He says that our perceptions and expectations of optimism can be altered with a single word “Yes”. On the other side, “No” can make you feel negative. “Yes” is like a green light which implicitly says “go” while no is like a red signal telling you to stop. There is another article “Can language influence our perception about reality”, where Mitch Moxley cites an example of Aboriginal languages in Australia that don’t use the terms “left” and “right”. Instead, they use cardinal directions like east, west, north and south. Studies show that these people are good at staying oriented when inside a building compared to those who use left and right to point out direction. Languages also change the way we see things. Lera Boroditsky verbalized how languages shape the way we think in a Ted Talk. She cited an experiment that they conducted where various speakers of different languages were shown an image of a vase being broke along with a man standing next to the vase and were asked to describe the same. English speakers described it as “He broke the vase” whereas the Spanish or Japanese speakers said, “The vase broke.” When one describes the accident as “He broke the glass, they tend to blame or punish someone more as against to people describing it as “The vast broke”. Thus, languages guide our reasoning for an event.

Thus, words, if used rightly, can not only influence people’s perception towards us but change the way we see things. However, when you are on the receiving end, ensure that you replace fancy words with a synonym and check whether you see them the same way. You might be able to avoid taking an impulsive decision. So, think before you speak and think after you listen.

Ishita Doshi