I say “toe-may-toe,” you say “toe-mah-toe.” I say “poe-tay-toe,” you say “poe-tah-toe.” I say “person,” you say “foreigner.”
Oh boy. Here we go.
Let the emotional rhetoric begin.
Before we go there, let me assure you that I am not going to take up space in this article arguing for or against anything immigration related. Why? Because if you agree with me, of course you’ll keep reading. And if you disagree with me, of course you’ll move on to another article that is more of a reflection (validation) of your own opinion. This is why you’re either a CNN, or a Fox News, or an MSNBC type of viewer. People will gravitate toward the one that offers the least amount of challenge to their own viewpoints. So no, I am not here to debate the rights and wrongs of our country’s immigration policies.
My goal is to discuss language and to broaden your understanding of how language is used to influence your thoughts and opinions about, well, everything. Let me rephrase that. My goal is to discuss language and to broaden your understanding of how language is used to manipulate your emotions and opinions.
Did you see what I did there? Did you get it? If not, keep re-reading that last paragraph until you do get it.
Look, language matters. The words we choose to use when arguing or just explaining things matter. Although they are intangible, words are very powerful things. They can lift the spirit or crush the soul. They can create a bridge or cause a divide in relationships. Words are very powerful things indeed. Don’t believe me? Well, then just explain to me (without cheating and looking up the definitions!) the differences between the following words:
Now, without giving away your own definitions or influencing them, go and ask several others to explain those words without looking them up. I’m willing to bet some good money that their definitions are likely to differ from your own. Perhaps they might slightly differ; perhaps they might greatly differ. The point is they are different.
Which brings me back to my original point… “poe-tay-toes” and “foreigners.”
You are likely thinking, “What the hell, Jen? What does language have to do with spuds and outsiders?”
I’m here to tell you that language has everything to do with spuds and outsiders. Well, just not the type of outsiders you’re thinking. I’m talking aliens. Stay with me!
Without getting emotional, I want you to look up and read just a few of the many articles available about the immigration debate. Finding the articles will be easy to do, as this topic has been a hot issue as of late. As you read these articles, try to pick out the words that trigger an emotional response. Notice how the words change depending on the desired result of the particular person or organization writing them. This, my friend, is rhetoric in action.
Let me explain more…
From Fox News (and I’m not picking on Fox News, this article happened to be the first one that came up in my Google search) an article begins with the headline containing the words “illegal immigrant children.” The same article goes on to use the terms “illegal immigrants,” “immigrants,” and “migrants” throughout. But what’s the difference? The article never explains, but I bet most people think they’re the same.
According to dictionary.com, Emigrant means, “a person who emigrates, as from his or her native country or region.” Immigrant means, “a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.” Migrant means, “a person who moves from place to place to get work, especially a farm laborer who harvests crops seasonally.”
The article uses the terms “immigrant” and “migrant” interchangeably, but when you begin to realize the differences between them, they really are talking about two very different things. An immigrant is moving to another country while a migrant moves place to place for work. Nothing is said about leaving or entering a country though. The average reader isn’t going to catch that, are they?
As I researched the three terms above, I came across an unexpected find. I was curious to find the definition for “illegal immigrant” since that was seemingly used interchangeably with the other words. Using the same website, I typed in the words “illegal immigrant.” To my surprise, the website automatically changed my search term from “illegal immigrant” to “illegal alien” and provided the following definitions: (1) “a foreigner who has entered or resides in a country unlawfully or without the country’s authorization” and (2) “a foreigner who enters the U.S. without an entry or immigrant visa, especially a person who crosses the border by avoiding inspection or who overstays the period of time allowed as a visitor, tourist, or businessperson.”
Did you catch the major difference between all of the definitions above, including emigrant, immigrant, migrant, and illegal immigrant? This little research experiment of mine turned out to be quite interesting.
The first thing that caught my attention was the automatic changing of the word “immigrant” to the word “alien.” I just find it interesting that the word used to describe a person who is not a naturalized citizen is the very same one used to describe a “creature from outer space.” Maybe it’s me, but that’s kind of funny. The second thing that caught my attention was the word “person” used in the first three definitions changed to the word “foreigner” in the latter definitions. I’m not lying! Just re-read the definitions for yourself.
Why the change and what does it matter? Oh, it matters alright. It matters a lot. It matters because it changes perception. People who understand the power of words, understand their ability to manipulate perception. And let’s be honest. Anytime we humans think of anything “alien,” it can’t be good.
Just think about it.
It’s much easier to demonize an “alien” or a “foreigner” than it is to demonize a “person.” It’s much harder to deny access and services to “children” than it is to “illegal immigrants.” It’s true. When you think of the word “person” versus the words “alien” or “foreigner,” what do you picture? Seriously, take a moment and picture a person. Now, picture an alien. Picture a foreigner. Did the visual in your head change? Don’t start back peddling now. Most likely, the visual did change. This is important to understand because different visuals link to different emotions. Emotions link to reactions. A word that gives a negative connotation (emotion) will prompt a negative view. This is what gives language its power. This is why rhetoric is so valued in news stories and politics. This is why a writer will lament for hours just to find the “right” word to use in a story. In essence, it’s manipulation in a most subtle form. You’re being told how to feel without you even knowing it.
You should now be able to go back to the articles you read previously and look at the stories in a whole new light. Look at the choice of words and determine why those particular words were chosen. What are the effects of using those particular words? Dissect the terminology and understand how it impacts your viewpoint. This is my challenge to you. Remain objective and don’t fall for the rhetoric. The sooner you are able to understand how language is used to influence (manipulate) your thoughts and feelings, the sooner you will be immune to those tactics and be able to view these issues from a more logical and emotionally intelligent standpoint.
The message you send may not be the message received.
If the students who take any of my communication classes learn nothing but one important lesson, I hope this is the one.
The message you send may not be the message received.
This lesson applies to not only face-to-face interactions, but to all interactions. It doesn’t matter if it’s in person, over the phone, through a text message, or social media, the results are all the same. If you’re not mindful of the messages you are sending and how they may be perceived, then you run into a higher probability of developing foot-in-mouth disease…or more commonly expressed as “Oops! I didn’t mean it like that!”
If you don’t practice mindfulness on a daily basis, then you’re probably the person who spends most days apologizing for something you “didn’t mean.” And that is not the other person’s fault. That is completely your fault.
But what can you do to make up for the lack of mindfulness when you have that “oops” moment? Of course, the best thing to do is to not have it happen in the first place, but alas, we are human. And to human is to err and to be perceived as a complete jackass at times. It’s hard to monitor our own communications. Many times we incorrectly equate our right to freedom of speech with the right to say anything without repercussions.
Sometimes you just have to ask yourself not “can I say this,” rather “should I say this?”
There’s a big difference. And by asking yourself that one question, you are practicing the art of mindfulness. Continue to practice mindfulness and the embarrassing moments won’t happen as often.
Unfortunately, being perceived as an asshole or a bigot due a temporary brain fart in the effective communication skills department can have much larger implications than just an embarrassing moment. It can lead to strained friendships, broken workplace relationships, being fired. And if you’re a celebrity? Be ready for the very public smear campaign by those who you most offended.
This concept of mindfulness of how your message may be perceived doesn’t just apply to individuals. It’s a concept that organizations need to remember as well.
Take a look at the photo below that was published in the March 22 issue of De Morgen, a Belgian daily newspaper.
Talk about an “oops!” moment.
The photo, which was published on March 22, 2014 was used as a “joke” according to the newspaper. The International Business Times reported on its website, “The paper joked that the photo was sent by Russian President Vladimir Putin who is at odds with Mr. Obama over the Crimea annexation by Russia.”
In an article titled, “Is De Morgen racist?” the editorial staff issued the following apology, “De Morgen apologises to anyone who took offence at the concerned passage in the newspaper. We are sorry. In this case we are guilty of bad taste.”
So, at the end of the day, the newspaper claimed that the use of this photo was purely satire. It was meant to be taken as a joke, but clearly it was not perceived as one by many people.
Whether the staff meant it as a joke or not is a moot point by now, but the daily paper at least admitted that the “joke” was in bad taste. Instead of letting the apology stand however, the paper continued to dig its hole even deeper by attempting to rationalize its use of the image of President Obama and the First Lady photo shopped to look like apes. The New York Times reported on its website that the paper “essentially absolved itself of the charge” by reporting in an editorial that its “regular readers” would have understood the satire.
In “Is De Morgen racist?” the editorial recognized that people throughout the world were upset by the use of the picture. The article compared the angry reactions of people from various countries including the Netherlands, multiple African countries, and the U.S. to the reactions of Belgians. The paper claimed that the “tone is calmer in Belgium.” It recommended the reason could be because many [in Belgium] understand the paper “simply had a lapse of poor judgment.” I’m certain the editors meant that they had a lapse in good judgment. Regardless, this issue is anything but simple.
Never mind the apologies. The perception that the paper is run by racists is out there. The editors responsible for this showed a complete lack of mindfulness. In their attempt at humor, they came across as bigoted instead. And the perception is all that matters.
The editors wrote, “The editorial staff now realizes that this risk was not assessed enough in advance.”
Yep, that is a bitter pill to swallow.
Always remember to be mindful of the message you are communicating, whether it be a word used, a picture posted, an outfit worn, or a gesture made.
The message you send may not be the message received.
Jennifer Furlong has 25 years’ experience in the communication field and teaches communication and public speaking courses in the Savannah area. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in Communication from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She currently resides in Richmond Hill, Ga. with her family of canines, felines, and humans. Let's be social! Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. Just look for Professor SpeechLady. See you in cyberspace.
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