What are you thinking? The influence of language we use

“How are you feeling?” asks the doctor. “Who cares what I feel? Ask me what I’m thinking. Then you might learn something.” This is what Meryl Streep answers, playing her role of Margaret Thatcher, in the movie The Iron Lady directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Words, mere words, tell us many things.

Language and meaning

Words have a power all their own
Image by waɪ.tiː via Flickr

Thoughts become things and the words you, others and I choose convey a lot, an often hidden world, with various consequences. Listen carefully, pay attention, though be mindful of mind-reading. When you mind-read, you attach a meaning to something that is actually not the meaning of the communicator. Day in day out we interpret the world around us and what people are saying, sharing and doing. We fill things in, take short-cuts, listen to things that were not said, trigger emotions with certain words or phrases or gestures or tones, imagine things that were not shown or specifically called for, impose our view of the world on the information that is coming our way. How is this information coming our way?

We see things, we hear things, we feel things, verbally and non-verbally. This is then translated with our personal language and “map”, including our beliefs and values, and transforms the incoming information to images, sounds, feelings, thoughts and: make sense or not. To prevent yourself mind-reading or (help others) attach the right meaning, be specific when you communicate and when someone else communicates ask for clarification if unclear or test.

However, there are many contexts when relatively vague language is useful. Marketing or sales efforts are sometimes designed to trigger thoughts or actions in a certain direction without clearly saying or showing it to you. There is a lot more to say about this one but I will do that in another post. And how about politics? Imagine you want many people to vote for you or your idea, who all have their own view of the world. You cannot be too specific because you run the risk of leaving a lot of people out. Strike a balance between abstract and more defined so it keeps options and interpretation open. Consequently, this attracts and mobilizes as many people as possible. Again, there is a lot more to say about this one and I will do so in another post. Last context in this context is culture. For example in the Netherlands, being clear and specific in communication is generally the habit and norm. In many other countries and cultures, this type of communication is often perceived as offensive communication and can be taken “personal”.

The movie and a theme

Returning to the topic of The Iron Lady, there is some criticism on bringing out this movie and depicting the former PM suffering from dementia while Mrs. Thatcher is still alive. Some people regard this as disrespectful. Others argue that dementia ought not to be a taboo and the movie is not about dementia as such, but respectfully about the life of Mrs. Thatcher. Again, there are differences in interpretation. Acknowledging but not entering the debate, I enjoyed the movie and Meryl Streep’s performance is a delight. Be sure to watch the enticing video trailer of The Iron Lady on YouTube.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher
Image via Wikipedia

A theme in this movie, highlighted in the introductory quote, is a distinction and connection between thinking and feeling. This is where Meryl Streep’s character specifically draws a line. It plays to the notion that in life, people may perceive the character as a cold woman. Let’s juggle words and speculate a little here. Leaving actions out of the picture, perhaps the sensation “cold” relates to the character’s tendency to “think” more than “feel”? Do you think there is a difference between men and women on this front and existing gender expectations? In other words, are women possibly expected to show more emotion, compared to men, and therefore usually appear, or thought to appear, less thoughtful and more emotional? Thus, if a woman differs from this expected view, or assumption, or belief, or proven “truth” (if that exists), we cannot place her in the standard box “woman”. No, in fact the attributes belong in the standard box of “man”, i.e. manly behaviour. What do we do then? Perhaps default to a negative in evaluating the topic under investigation, since matching standard or being average to some extent is positive, is expected, is rewarded? Or is this drawing of meaning and consequences mere nonsense?

The word “iron” is a great example of words and their meaning. Properties attached to iron are unbending, not to be broken, holding, cold, power, strength, inflexible, firmness, unrelenting, insensible, firm, robust, enduring, rude, hard, harsh, severe. In expression: to rule with a rod of iron, an iron will, an iron constitution, made of iron. A derivative is the instrument made of iron to “iron” or smooth clothes. And all this based on a common useful metallic magnetic element with scientific chemical symbol Fe. Interesting, isn’t it? Note how often people use words and their assumed meaning interchangeably.

Thinking, feeling, doing

Continuing the line of thinking and feeling, people today often focus on feeling. You have to feel good, be happy. How about thinking and doing? Can we feel too much? Can we think too much? Can we do too much? And neglect the others? How do they interrelate? Can we think ourselves to feel happy or to success? Recently, I did an extended interview with double and current World Champion Canoe Slalom Corinna Kuhnle, who knows a thing or two about this triangle and relating it to performance. To perform extremely well Corinna is actually after not thinking during the race because that detracts focus from doing. So thinking can get in the way of doing = performance.

» Play the video below for my conversation with Corinna Kuhnle, at Penrith Whitewater Stadium and while hiking in the Blue Mountains, and see some race footage.

On the other hand, thoughts do materialise. Athletes use it all the time in their preparation as you can also hear in the interview. Norman Doidge describes in his international bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself various scientific studies of how imagination or thinking makes it so. Systematic mental practice or mental rehearsing proves for example an effective way to prepare for learning a physical skill with minimal physical practice. From a neuroscientific point of view, imagining an act and doing it are not as different as they sound. Brain scans show that in action and imagination many of the same parts of the brain are activated. Furthermore, in some cases, the faster you can imagine something, the faster you can do it. Research in this field lead to development of machines that “read” people’s thoughts and can benefit people who are paralysed to move things with their thoughts or translate their thought’s content.

People use patterns or sequences in actions, thoughts and feelings, and they vary in different situations, time and place and outcomes. You can find clues in language and communication. Communication is a fascinating art! What are your thoughts or feelings? Are you doing anything with or on this?

Related posts on this website
• Are some languages faster than others?


3 thoughts on “What are you thinking? The influence of language we use

    1. Somehow your comment slipped off the radar…but it’s now un-spammed. Better late than never and reply. Thanks Joy, good to hear you found this article interesting, peace!

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