Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Psychology of Language Use: Big Words & Zombie Nouns

I'm very interested in the use of language, as a joy of life, and as a factor in psychological health.

Poetry and rhetoric are beautiful and powerful forms of self-expression,  and of beginning a dialog with others in an effort to solve problems.

It is therapeutic to have a forum to express yourself.    Journaling can be a part of psychological well-being, as a way to process past adversity or trauma, and  as a way to manage anxiety.  One of the most meaningful aspects of psychotherapy can be to share your story out loud with a supportive, respectful therapist.

One of the problems with some new  brief styles of mental health care can be that there is very little comfortable space given for  expressing yourself in this way.    Instead, care is guided by questionnaires, symptom reviews, and mechanical treatment algorithms.

This blog has been enjoyable for me to write.  I had always wanted to do some writing.  It has been good for my own health, in many ways.  It has been my own self-expression!

I do enjoy writing...but I'm quite conscious that my style of writing may not actually be that enjoyable for many readers.   The way I speak, and write, often can sound really formal and wordy...I would like to work on this, but it can be hard to change these habits.  Also, I want to use my actual, authentic voice, which actually is a bit formal and wordy!

During the past year, I have come across many examples of language use which have bothered me...in fact, this is one of the big reasons I am writing this post today.

To explain, there are two authors I'd like to refer to...

Daniel Oppenheimer: Using Long Words Needlessly

The first is Princeton Professor Daniel Oppenheimer, who in 2006 published an amusing article called "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly."

He showed, quite simply, from 5 experiments, that if you use bigger, longer words, people will form an impression that you are less intelligent!   In his words, "needless complexity leads to negative evaluations."   The use of jargon and complex vocabulary can sometimes be an indication of being part of an "in-group."  But especially in mental health discussions, it is vitally important that the therapeutic community not be an "in group" separate from the community of clients!   This is one extremely important reason to avoid such jargon!

Here is another useful quote from his discussion:

Pennebaker and Lay (2002) have shown that people are more likely to use big words when they are feeling the most insecure...leaders facing crucial decisions might use more complex vocabulary and end up undermining others’ confidence in their leadership ability. Thus it may be worthwhile to investigate ways of either preventing the tendency to use needless complexity, or look at ways that fluency biases might be overcome.
In the interim, we can conclude one thing...write clearly and
simply if you can, and you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent.
In discussions about health care and wellness, as in other communications from daily life, it is good to strive towards beauty and clarity in language.  Beauty and clarity are intrinsically healthy and comforting.  Awkward language, jargon, and rambling, confused text induce anxiety, stress, and irritation in the reader or listener.

Steven Pinker:  Zombie Nouns 

The second author is the famous linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker, who recently published a  book called The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Penguin, 2014).

Pinker has a refreshing approach to looking at writing style and grammar use, with an interesting focus on the history and background of stylistic rules.  Many grammar and style rules are cultural variants, and are often held more strictly than is appropriate, especially given their often arbitrary nature.  Many of our greatest authors have often violated various style or grammar "rules."

Pinker describes a particular style problem, which is prevalent among academics and bureaucrats.  This type of talk is common in politics and in corporate lingo and jargon.  He calls this "bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese, medicalese, or officialese."  

...as I browse through Pinker's book again, I find myself  self-conscious about my own writing style, right now...here's a quote attributed to Mark Twain, which shows that I'm not following good style advice right now myself:
substitute damn every time you're inclined to write very [or quite, or especially, or particularly, etc.]; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.
Anyway, I think Pinker is so right about the need to work on better style, to make language more beautiful, expressive, and enjoyable...

A lot of Pinker's illustrations are quite funny.  I had a good laugh when he referred to the word "model" as "a verbal coffin,"   There is a lot of "model" talk in health care planning--too much talk about "models" and too little time taking care of patients or clients in need!    

 Another term Pinker uses is "zombie nouns."  This is the confusing, pedantic use of words which are almost neologisms, where a noun is turned into a new verb, or perhaps back into a noun again with extra suffixes.   This language use imposes a sort of "in group" status upon those engaging in it...which could be useful for a team working on a narrow project, but not healthy for a team hoping to serve and interact with the community in a sensitive and empathic way.

Here are some variations of this:

noun into verb into noun again:  "languaging"
adjective into noun: "the collaborative,"  "competencies"
noun into verb: "effectualizing"
noun into adjective into verb: "operationalize"

Applications for Healthy Living

I encourage you to practice using your voice!  I mean this literally, in terms of speaking out loud!  I also mean it figuratively, in terms of writing and expressing yourself in other media.

If you do some writing, such as in a journal, pay attention both to the content (which could be writing about painful life experiences, about things you feel gratitude for, or about musings of your imagination), but also to the process.   Enjoy language, and form a style which is sincere, expressive, and beautiful!  If you are writing or speaking for other people, then be sure to empathize with your audience, and to consider ways to make your communication understandable and engaging.

Oppenheimer, DM (2006).  Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity:  Problems with using long words needlessly.  Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20(20), 139-156.

Pinker, S. (2015).  The sense of style:  The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century. Penguin Books.

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