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What's in a Word: A Popular Culture Perspective?

By Dr. John Reid, President, JER Online
When you think of it, I mean really give the matter some critical thought, you are likely to discover that some words used in business (and personal life) to express feelings or convey information to others are nothing more than noise and clutter. Suppose someone was applying for a loan and the response was communicated as follows: “Unfortunately I cannot guarantee that even though I realize you are frustrated and worried about what might happen if your application is denied, I will try to see what I can do for you." Some word usages are so subtle and scripted that we do not even realize what we are saying.  Of course our example here is rather wordy but I think you get the point.

The five italicized words just mentioned are the subject of our discussion. The objective is to give thoughtful consideration on eliminating them from everyday speech and written communication and have some fun engaging in this mental exercise. At the end of this article a simple suggestion will be made that will help change your perspective and put a positive spin on how to become a more effective and dynamic communicator. For now, consider the following five words I have identified and how they are used.

The "W" Word as in "I'm Worried"
Mad is an American humor magazine founded by Editor Harvey Kurtzman and publisher William Gaines in 1952. The mascot for that magazine was Alfred E. Neuman whose comment, "What me worry?" appeared on the front cover.  In a way, the idea of relieving one's self from worry was the focus of the satire.  Also in the 50's, most of us old enough to remember had regular weekly nuclear attack survival drills. We would quickly get under the desks and cover our heads. The conventional expert wisdom of the day was that some would be able to survive.  Our generation was of course too young and na├»ve to worry. We had no clue.

Regardless of where you place yourself in the chronology of the "Worry Word World" it is still and always has been simply a bad word choice to use. It does seem to make more sense to consider alternatives. Instead of being worried you could say you are "concerned" such as, "I am concerned over the state of the economy, my 401K, job security, marriage and children."  Or perhaps a customer might suggest, "I'm worried that my credit card may have been charged twice." Your customers service rep could respond, "I understand your concern and will take care of that matter promptly." You would not want to say, I understand that you are worried...."  

There is no doubt that worry affects our health, relationships, and business. Being concerned over a matter still emphasizes the importance of taking care of business, but does leave some room for emotional and psychological processing to occur without the extra baggage worry contributes to.
The "T" Word as in "I'll Try"
An advertising slogan made famous by Alka-Seltzer stated the following. "Try It, You Will Like It."  So we are already used to saying we want to try something before taking the plunge.  Maybe some like the idea of trying out a new taste sensation or exotic dish, or a new car before making the second most expensive purchase, next to a house. These are good word choices if the "T" word. Where some get in trouble is when they start to tell others,  "I'll try to be there but may be delayed," or, something like, "I'll try to help get you an answer." We are now in the realm of non-commitment and when this word is used as an excuse for bad behavior it takes on a whole new meaning.  Sure there are delays, but, why preface that with the "T" word. Why not change your rhetoric and make "commitment firm" statements?   It sounds much, better from a customer service perspective to tell someone you will do something to help them rather than try to do it.  When we say we will "Try" we are actually saying something quite different about commitment and how we view others and their needs.
The "F" Word as in "I'm Frustrated"
"I'm Frustrated! Something didn't work the way I expected it to!" This is the most infamous of word choices and is used by many consumers as a means to embolden their positions, whether right or wrong and to achieve an advantage of some sort. They have learned from the consumer shopping experience that using this coded word gets deals, refunds and pretty much anything else they can creatively conjure up at the moment.  Some have become experts at manipulating the system based on this particular word usage.

Outside of the airline industry and their no nonsense approach to handling disgruntled customers, very few companies are as hard line and have a tendency to "bail" at the first sign of a "frustrated customer." Why should students enrolled in continuing education programs think any differently? Those who are unhappy and frustrated are given preferential treatment and concessions including refunds and free courses. Responding to abuse, the local home improvement store has placed on their printed store receipts a notice to the buyer indicating that refunds may not necessarily be granted. Receipts are being flagged by computer programs for those who abuse the system and cost the company lost profitability.

In other ways, communicating that one is "frustrated" also like the "W" word as in Worried has the potential to create stress and in doing so, affect mental well being.  As to the "F" word's origin, some  suggest that the  word flabagast (origin 1765-75) was used quite commonly to communicate that one was amazed, astonished, perplexed, and confused (upset?). It might be better for all of us to simply say we are likely "flabbergasted" when something doesn't go our way like standing in the checkout line for a minute or two. Note: The next time you are tuned into the local news see how often the "Frustrated" word comes up. You will be astonished (flabbergasted).

The "U" Word as in "Unfortunately for you"
"Unfortunately we cannot reverse the late payment fee for your past due credit card" or "Unfortunately your brakes are in need of replacement, and oh, by the way you need a set of new rotors.  You should have come in sooner for repair." How often have we heard someone on the other end of the phone tell us how unfortunate we are? When it comes to "U" word usage we already know that whatever follows is going to be a harbinger of bad things to come.

Certainly nothing good can come from this spoken word. And yet, there it is, used in our daily commerce. The next time you are on the phone with a customer service rep and they use the "U" word, journal how this comment affects you. In time and with enough documentation you should begin to understand what a really repugnant word this is.  In fact it means bad luck, and omen, if you will.
There is a way to use the "U" word however in tandem with the antonym, "fortunately." When used together the two words suggest a positive framework. For instance, consider this statement. "Unfortunately, you did not win little lotto, but fortunately, you won the multi-state Powerball."  How does it sound when you look to a customer service rep to help you with a bill or discrepancy and the voice on the other end of the line answers you with "Unfortunately"?  Are you doing the same with your customers? Is staff?

The "I" Word as in "If you do this"
The Broadway musical Carousel features the song, "If I Loved You". While a truly beautiful piece of music, interjecting the "if" word suggests that with all this "iffiness"  love won't come easy for the main characters,  Billy and Julie. The use of this conjunction or noun creates for the user a dilemma. We need a workaround to delete this word before it hits our tongue.  Why not consider just being direct when it comes to communicating verbally or in writing.
Here are two examples to consider:

From this
: In the event, if I were to go, I would be late.
To: I will likely be late to the event.
From this:  Ask if he plans to come to the meeting.
Ask him what his plans are as it relates to coming to the meeting.

Getting back to Carousel  the lyricist and the creative expression of the song allows the use of the "If" word. We understand that. On the other hand, how the rest of us non -usical types use conditional expressions in our daily business and personal communication is something to consider, be aware of and avoid. Used as a Noun there can be a stipulation to take action as the following statement suggests. There should be no ifs spoken but perhaps a few ands or buts (hopefully you got the joke here).
The Next Step
So what can we do about this problem?  In a time when the political climate is supercharged with all sorts ugly words and phrases shooting across the bows of politicians, it would seem like a good time to take action and do our part. So consider, what are some word's you would like to permanently remove from your vocabulary? We have only represented a few of them. Surely there are hundreds more. The only way this can be accomplished is through a tried and tested behavior modification method I have used myself. It works well when put into consistent practice.

Let's suppose that you are speaking to someone and you inadvertently use the "T-TRY" word from above. You say something like this: "I'm trying to find out where the mistake is but will need more time to research the problem." At that very moment you should realize that you have used the terrible "T" word. You really do not want to "try to find the mistake" but rather "find it". You must now take the all important step. Openly confess, no matter the circumstances or who you are communicating with.  You must say that you have miscommunicated your intention. That is your goal; to self correct yourself by restating and eliminating the word in question.  In a sense this idea of confession to total strangers or influential's has a humbling quality and this is where good things really begin to happen.  It is the cleansing and purging that leads to a catharsis and a change in direction.

A case in point:  In a number of instances I have stopped in the middle of a conversation with a client school, Dean, VP and corrected myself.  In the past I would catch myself saying something conditional like "I'll try to get you a course demo today." I now hear myself thinking before I speak. "I will not try to get you what you are asking for... I will do it."  That's how I say it. "I'll get you that demo today and tomorrow at the latest."  So in fact, you can also employ a sort of "mind control" methodology. What is required here is the ability to recognize the word you are about to speak and to deny its utterance.  This will take a great deal of practice, but in time you will start to catch yourself.  As my father, a former band director told his students, "Practice makes perfect."

To some degree these approaches have some additional benefits. It is likely that the receiver of your message is similarly misusing the same verbiage and maybe even to a far greater degree.  What could better than you winning over a convert to a new way of expression?

We began by asking the question, "What's in a Word"?  It should be obvious that the goal here was to have some fun but also look seriously at word choice and usage. The business lexicon, consists of hundreds of words so it seems probable we can do better on how we communicate with each other when it comes to our spoken and written rhetoric.
In a way of thinking differently about this subject, the idea of word usage fits well with Communication Theorist, Marshall McLuhan's notion of how information is conveyed and understood by senders and receivers (human beings). When he penned his famous phrase "the medium is the message" he was thinking about all forms of communication.  In this case, words and their usage by senders and receivers of the message fit well within the communication paradigm.  Words are the symbols of expression and thought and say a lot about how you see your world and self and those around you and how you are similarly viewed.

As in any critical thinking exercise the objective is to get past the obvious and dig deep for answers and revelation. Having shared this article with trusted colleagues it is apparent that we are on to something that can be extended by feedback, suggestions and ideas for furthering the discourse. We already have one reader suggesting not only pointing out words but also groups of words that make up phrases.
Finally, we will not assume that "If" you find this article insightful you will respond. Rather we encourage contributions and creative thought to anyone reading this essay. By all means contribute to our discussion and further knowledge on the subject by posting your own observations and comments at Dr. John's Blog.

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