Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, observed that how we talk affects how we handle problems and how we behave. He found that scientists, trained to be specific, handled both personal and laboratory problems better than non-scientists. Non-scientist, then as now, used words loaded with feeling and prejudgment and got into trouble.
Changing the way we use certain everyday words can actually shift the way we see the world and other people, helps change the emotion-laden attitudes being the words, and makes us less likely to make inappropriate demands on ourselves and others.
There is also a change in the effect on others. Teachers, told that certain students have hidden talents, will help them develop, even if the students were selected blindly by researcher. People act as they think they have been defined, and like it or not, our words play a large part in expressing that definition.
In our work, we have found six words that are often used in damaging ways: try, always, is, can’t, should and everybody. These words are really “families” of words. Always can be expanded to never, every time. Should is also ought to, must, have to. We use nobody, no one, all, the way we use everybody.
Each of these words is linked to the concept of time. “Everybody does it” implies every person always does it. Should reflects a standard adopted in the past, governing someone, as “she is impossible to deal with.” Alfred Korzybski called humans “time binders”: Facts, opinions and behaviors are learned, repeated and passed on, even though they may not necessarily have been true in the first place. Both Korzybski and S.I. Hayakawa, who is a respected semanticist, caution us against using such “allness” terms.
Yet we do use them, as though by doing so we could somehow manage the present and future. “With words,” says Hayakawa in Language in Thought and Action”, we influence and to an enormous extent control.” “I’ll meet you at three Thursday” is an attempt to make anther person —- and ourselves —- be at a certain place at a certain time. Hayakawa writes, “The future is a specifically human dimension. To a dog, ‘hamburger tomorrow’ is meaningless. With words we [human] impose a certain predictability upon future events”
Similarly, we attempt to control people’s actions and even characteristics with can’t, should. Everybody and related words. We try thus to create “reliable” data, however unrelated it is to the facts.
According to Freud, to some mental patients certain words become magical, symbols of whole training of thought condensed. Seriously ill neurotics maintain some of that magic: “Everybody’s against me” or “I have to do this.” And nearly all of us have the same bad habit to a less intense degree.
When and where do we begin this pattern of restrictive words and beliefs?
According to the late speech expert Wendell Johnson, as adults we are still “using information, attitudes, beliefs, procedures, practices … adapted to an earlier time. “Our beliefs, and the words we use to support them and to protect ourselves from change, come from early in our lives. Willis Harman, Ph.D., a futurist at SRI (formerly Stanford Research Institute), maintains that we are all in a way hypnotized form infancy. “We do not perceive ourselves and the world about us as they are, but as we have been persuaded to perceive them,” says Dr. Harman. Research shows that objects and people with some familiar characteristics tend to be perceived by the infant as identical. The newborn cannot distinguish between self and surrounding. When the baby is hungry, everybody is hungry. Later, any man becomes “Daddy” and every animal “doggie”
We use such early biases to make life easy, as well as comfortable and familiar. If I adopt the belief as a child that “I am dumb,” it is easier to act it out continually than to resist it — thus I unconsciously make sure it stays true.
Taking each family of words separately, here is what they represent and how to stop using them destructively.
Benjamin Keller, head of the Los Angeles branch of the Vector Counseling Institute, tells of one desperate young woman: “Her marriage wasn’t going well. As she put it, ‘no matter how hard I try, I just can’t clean, cook and work at the same time.’ She was trying so hard she was constantly tense and exhausted.” She agreed to stop trying and just do those things the best she could. Without the inner struggle, she found that she could schedule some things, let others go, and accomplish more.
When we switch from try, which anticipates failure, to “do the best I can,” we did exactly that. We could not have done better, or we would have. Check it out: Consciously delete try from your vocabulary for a month.
Always and never are our creations. Much more accurate are words that represent gradation, that cover a whole range, such as almost always, many times, frequently, not often, hardly ever.
When we believe a person is always faithful, and he proves otherwise, we are hurt. When we believe we will never lose a particular friend, or our money, or a job, and we do, we respond with grief and resentment. Popular songs, expressing cultural truths, reflect this. “Always and Forever,” we say. “You Belong to Me” or “ I Can’t Smile Without You” we sing.
Our use of is, I am in English is virtually unique. In Spanish, separate verbs distinguish temporary from permanent: estar, to be in a temporary sense, and ser, to be in a permanent sense. So with French and many other languages. But in English, we can only describe a permanent, unalterable condition.
A youngster who repeatedly hears how lazy he is tends to agree. “I am lazy.” Adopted as his own reality, “the way I am,” it can become a fact of his life. If I call him lazy (“the way he is”), I will see his actions colored by that judgment. Anger, resentment and rigidity may develop in both of us as a result.
Can’t carries the same burden of permanence, expressed this time in a negative way. “You can’t do anything right,” say our parents. When we try our hand at algebra or cooking, and don’t do well, if we conclude, “I can’t do it,” we tend not to attempt it again. Thus language has done our thinking for us. If we accept our first-round failure for what it really is —- doing the best we can at that moment —- we are much freer to try again. Or by learning to be more precise: “perhaps I can’t… with the education, experience, or information I now have,” we free ourselves to seek out the necessary information, experience or education.
Notice how you feel when you say, “I should call her,” or “I must get this done.” Shoulds are a source of guilt. If the guilt is appropriate, fine. But it’s a waste to trigger it by using language that reflects other people’s standards that we’ve rejected.
Perhaps we use everybody, nobody, no one to make things seem better known than they are, or to have our opinions supported. If “everybody does it” we’re safe. Everybody includes too much, and nobody excludes too much. These terms prevent seeing differences between individuals. When we use them, we’re inaccurate most of the time; we also miss a lot.
What can we expect when we change our use of try, always, is, can’t, should and everybody? You will notice no “overnight” changes but you will definitely be easing yourself into a less dogmatic frame of mind, more open, less demanding —- in some ways scarier. Did you mean everybody? Or could it be some people, or many people I know? Is he really that way, or does he seem that way to you, now? Should you really be more (or less) ambitious, or are you judging yourself by someone else’s standards? Are all your dates broken, or just the last two?
It takes time, and it takes honesty. Try it.
No, do it.
This article was written by Marian Simpson Burtt and George Burtt and was originally published in Glamour magazine, July 1979, pages 87-88.