Language shapes the way you think

Have a safe flight

I missed you!

Why not?

Don’t do that!

Have a safe flight!

(and thanks to a dear friend and colleague for reminding me of this road sign in Cayman!)

Four very commonly used phrases that you often use unconsciously.

Four phrases that, variously, implant negatives when you say them

Do you see yourself as a negative person? No? Well, you are when you use such language. Language shapes the way you think, as well as those you use it towards.

Now, let’s pause. What do you notice you are thinking or feeling right now about what I’ve written? About me perhaps?

My guess is that you may feel a little defensive, a little negative.

What if I’d replace each “you”, “yourself” with the less direct “we”, “ourselves”? Could that have made you feel subtly different?

Language is powerful and does shape the way we think. I’m fascinated by language and how we all use it in so many ways.

To summarise into a few areas some of the language points above :

  • Negative Language
  • Third party language
  • Past rather than Present/Future focussed language
  • Fear-based language

I could dive into each of these, yet today I’ll go in a different direction.

Even really innocuous phrases can unconsciously shape the way we think.

“Have a safe flight!” is a particular favourite of mine. Always well meant, always unconscious. After all, it never occurred to me that the aircraft I am about to travel on was anything other than the safest possible way to travel 😜

Now consider how people often respond (note my use of third-party language to soften this) when we ask “How are you ?”

“Can’t complain”

“Not bad”


Again, often used unconsciously, yet none will create positive energy. On the last one, if you are so moved, look up “acronyms for fine” and you’ll note that none of them has positivity in them!

My late guide Ed Percival loved to make a positive impact in every interaction, and he often did this by being discordant, creating an unexpected interaction. Imagine someone greeting you in a store and asking “how are you”, then the giant Ed making strong eye contact, beaming a smile, calling you by name (as he’d taken time to read your name tag), and answering something like: “wonderful, thank you, and judging by the smile on your face, so are you !”

Language shapes the way you think.

Now, I’ve studied the impact of this in English for many years, yet my knowledge of other languages is limited. However, I do find learning elements of language fascinating, and as I have got to know many people of other cultures and native languages, I absolutely observe the different ways they think and how that is influenced by their language.

My intrigue in this topic is boundless, so I follow it in different ways, two of which I will share here.

First (and thanks to my friend Kobi Dorenbush for sharing this) a TED Talk that gives some amazing examples from some of the more than 7,000 languages and how they shape the way we think.

After that, I’ll also reflect on how this is considered in the movie Arrival.

For all of us, how can we consider the power of language to shape not only the way others think but also how we ourselves think?

A simple example from the TED talk is that if we asked people to organise time, English speakers would do it from left to right, yet Hebrew or Arabic speakers from right to left.

Now to the movie Arrival. I wrote about this in “Movies with Meaning – The Meaning of Time“, noting: “I do have the sense that language, allied with culture, absolutely impacts the way we perceive the universe. Now, what then happens in the extremes, when the language of the aliens is not spoken, but felt and though, is in circular form, and tells the past, present and future all at once?”.

Arrival is one of my favourite movies ever, highly recommended, and in that post there are references to two other movies that make us think about time differently.

“there are days that define your story beyond your life”

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