I am alarmed! The impact of the words we use on others

Words are one of the most powerful tools we all have at our disposal. Words convey our thoughts and feelings, they build and tear down relationships, and how we use our words sets us apart from others. Words and hence the collective language we use also help define cultural and group norms. Think about it. Do you have certain phrases or words that you use just with your friends or your team at work? Are there certain words that have different meanings to them when used with your partner? In my team we use the phrase “busy and important” in jest, to tease each other when we haven’t attended to less attractive but necessary tasks. For example, “I can’t clean the coffee cups today because I am too busy and important”.

Our words and their shared meaning bond us to some people and distance us from others. In social psychology this is called ingroups and outgroups.  An ingroup is a social group with which a person psychologically identifies as being a member, and by contrast an outgroup is a social group with which an individual does not identify.  For the most part, people will have preference for their ingroup over an outgroup, and will consider their ingroup homogenous and the outgroup as different from the ingroup.  Ingroups develop their own set of behavioural norms, i.e. what is and is not accepted as appropriate behaviour amongst the group. They also develop their own sense of language and a shared meaning of words.

The other day I was in a feedback session with a client who had recently completed some assessments. I sensed the client was a little apprehensive about the feedback and she demonstrated this through the words she used in the first few minutes of our session. I asked her a standard, rapport building question and one I have used hundreds, if not thousands of times with clients/candidates. “So (insert client name here), what is your role at (insert organisation name here)? Tell me about what you do.” This is what I believe to be a non-threatening, general, open-ended question designed to get the person to talk about themselves in a safe environment, i.e. “tell me about your job”, as opposed to “tell me about yourself” which can be a little daunting to some.  When the client responded with “I am alarmed that you don’t know what I do here”, I have to admit I was a little taken aback by this and her use of the word “alarmed”.

To alarm means to make (someone) feel frightened, disturbed, or in danger. Synonyms for alarmed include afraid, anxious, fearful, aghast, petrified, uneasy, troubled, terrified, and panicky. My immediate (internal) reaction to her use of the word alarmed was concern that my (seemingly) benign question asking her to tell me about her role, had made her feel in danger.

Nevertheless, the session continued reasonably smoothly as I was on high alert to use words and ask questions that would make the client feel more at ease. At the end of the session the client’s manager came in for a 3-way debrief. During the debrief, when describing a recent example of something that had happened in their team, the manager used the word “alarmed” as a key description of how she felt in response to the recent event. What she was describing, in my opinion, was not alarming i.e. it was an example of a communication breakdown in the team, and did not cause panic, terror or fear within the team. However, the significance of her story was not in describing the event itself but was in the use of the word “alarmed”. It was instantly clear to me that within that team, of which my client and her manager were a key part, the word “alarmed” was used freely and without strong regard for its actual meaning. It was a cultural norm to be “alarmed” at events that were more surprising than alarming.  To the outgroup member, i.e. me, the word had seemed odd as I do not share their ingroup bond, but to the members of the ingroup this word was the norm.

So my point? We are all members of ingroups (our families, our sporting teams, our work mates, our religious groups, etc.) and we all (to varying levels, of course) regard people different from us as others who belong to the outgroup. We have our shared norms, our shared language and ways of interacting, and what we can do better is to be aware of this, particularly when interacting with people who do not share those norms or language. We can be better aware of the impact our behaviour has on others and how, at times, this can be alarming.

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