Words have meaning. That meaning carries weight and can have an impact on your mindset. Consider the difference between “I should do the laundry” and “I choose to do the laundry” – one carries the burden of a chore while the other has the feel of an elected option. Afterall, do I have to do the laundry? Will the universe explode if I don’t? Nope. I could not do the laundry at all, ever again, for the rest of my life. However, by choosing to not do the laundry, I’ll be left wearing dirty, smelly clothes. So, instead, I choose to do the laundry in order to have clean clothes for wearing the next day. “Should” can be used as a shortcut for communicating a more complicated message “I am choosing to do laundry so that I can have clean clothes to wear tomorrow and in order to have the clothes washed and dried in time this would be the best time for me to get the process started.” Phew, that’s a mouthful! It may be briefer to say “should” but it comes with a weight to shoulder.
Is it possible to rephrase the “should” in your daily vocabulary into “could” or “choose”? This process is part of “reframing” – a CBT technique that uses language flexibility to help encourage greater mental flexibility and seeing situations from different perspectives. “I choose to cook dinner because I’m hungry, have groceries in the house, and don’t want to spend the extra money on delivery.” This has a greater sense of ownership and empowerment than “I have to cook dinner.” It’s okay that there may never be the reframing of “Hooray! I am so excited to cook dinner this evening, I may even do a little jig around the kitchen!” The emphasis is on the electing to participate in a given action and not on the emotions associated with said action.
Initially, this intentional word usage can feel very artificial. However, it’s an adaptation that we utilize more often than we realize. People tend to be more thoughtful about their word choices when speaking to specific audiences or in particular settings – not swearing up a storm when reading to the kindergarten class, for example. The more frequently these efforts are practiced and implemented, the more fluid the word usage can feel. Additionally, the awareness of word selection can also be associated with an increased awareness of what your thoughts are and how you’re feeling.
Recently, I made the decision to be more intentional with my use of the words “just” and “but” in my communications. Mostly this is in written communications (emails, texts, social media), though it has filtered into my conversations as well. It’s been a challenge with moments of pausing and adjusting my wordage and I think there had been a noticeable impact from this effort. Here are some examples:
When using “just” in my day-to-day vocabulary, it primarily was in the context “within a brief preceding time; but a moment before” or “only or merely” (thank you Dictionary.com for these definitions). This diminishes my actions.
“Just wanted to drop you a line.” Was I really merely doing some small or trivial act? Or throwing together a haphazard email to someone? This wording could convey that my communication was not important or that my connecting to this individual was not a priority. I have rephrased this oft-used line in my emails to something more along the lines of “I’m reaching out to you” or “I wanted to connect with you.” There’s a reason for my message, I’m choosing to write it, and I want the recipient to know that I was putting intentional thought into the process.
“I was just getting around to doing that.” Am I dismissing my effort in completing an activity? Could I be communicating that the activity isn’t a priority to me? This use of “just” implies an afterthought or a last-minute mentality. If I was late in doing something I committed to doing, I can acknowledge my being late. This can be uncomfortable, but it can be more appreciated to acknowledge the misstep than to dismiss it. “I didn’t get to it until this morning. I hope it’s not too late for me to address it.”
In thinking about my usage of “but” each day, it’s more in the vein of “on the contrary; yet” – turns out I can be quite contrary! I’ve found that this word can shut down the flow of a conversation, being more critical and dismissive. I remember someone once saying that “but” negates the statement that came before it. While this may not have been my intention, it does seem that this is what could have been conveyed to others.
“You did your homework, but did you double-check your answers?” This implies that the assignment isn’t fully complete until the answers have been reviewed. It also criticizes the student for feeling good about themselves with finishing their work. As if to say that what has been accomplished has no value. Now this doesn’t mean transitioning from “Mary, Mary, quite contrary” to a “Pollyanna” – instead, more considering what is trying to be communicated. “Thank you for letting me know that you completed your homework. How did you feel about doing it? Is there anything you’d like to go over or have me take a look at?” This can open up more conversation about school and life in general. It communicates interest and caring and support.
“I had planned on coming up with a second example, but I was having a hard time coming up with one.” Using “but” can be interpreted as an excuse or justification for an action. Why is it so difficulty to say “I didn’t do it” and accept the responsibility of not doing whatever the task may be? Because it’s uncomfortable! Consider replacing it with “and” to see where the conversation can lead to. “I had planned on coming up with a second example and was having a hard time coming up with one. Could you help me with this?” The “and” now takes the conversation in a new direction as it conveys a desire to continue with the initial action and opens a request for assistance.
“Yes, and…” is a fun improv exercise that highlights precisely how language can close down an interaction or open it to endless opportunities. Julie’s Greenroom on Netflix has a wonderful episode, “Morning at the Improv,” that shows how powerful (and fun and silly) this can be. And how can you go wrong with Julie Andrews?
The goal isn’t to become tongue-twisted over trying to pick the perfect words. Afterall, perfection doesn’t exist. Instead, the focus is on having the words connect to your intention. By finding ways to support and encourage yourself (and others) linguistically, you may also find ways to empower yourself in taking on new challenges.
“Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them!”