Choose Your Words and Metaphors Carefully

Choose your words and metaphors carefully
20 Apr 2020

In this chat we look at some of the neuroscience research behind metaphors and words – how what we say changes our experience in our bodies.

We then look at the words being used at the moment “self-isolation” and explore how that may affect mental health, before looking at a few alternative words that may be a more positive choice.

Show notes for those that prefer to read:

Words to me have always been something magical. If you think about yourself as a kid, you would always say, “Abracadabra” and hope that something may happen.

Well, words do make things happen, and science is just catching up.

One of the things that I’m fascinated about is metaphors. I’m the Queen of Metaphors! I love using powerful metaphors in marketing words.

A metaphor is something that gives a feeling and invokes an expression. There’s something spectacular about metaphors. But have you ever noticed how many metaphors relate to our body?

You give someone the cold shoulder; you get someone’s back up; you freeze someone out; you kick someone to the curb. There’s a lot of metaphors that are related to the body.

Linguists and neuroscientists were fascinated by this breadth of physical metaphors. So, they’ve been doing a lot of research, particularly in the last decade, about the link between the metaphors we use and the physiological response that we get.

For example, they hooked up a person to a brain scanner and had a look at what parts of the brain lit up when different words were used. When they said, “someone had a rough day” versus “someone had a hard day”, the part of the brain that related to our experience of textures lit up.

There’s been a lot of other research around our experience of temperatures and what happens to our body when we use warm or cold metaphors, or to our emotional experience when we experience warm or cold temperatures.

For example, they adjusted the ambient temperature of a store just a little bit warmer and then a little bit colder to see how people would perceive the actual store.

When the ambient temperature was a little bit warmer, what they found is people perceived the shop assistants and the actual shop as being warmer, friendlier more socially inclusive, more helpful, and safe.

When they turned the ambient temperature down just a little bit, not enough to notice, but just down a little bit, people felt that the shop assistants and the store itself were more aloof, a little bit more exclusive, socially isolating and unhelpful at times. And some people felt the store to be unsafe.

Now, this is an excellent reason for why in a workplace you need to have the air conditioner turned up to a warmer temperature. Women, you can win the air conditioner temperature debate finally because you want your workplace to have a feeling of inclusion, friendliness and safety.

What’s temperature got to do with metaphors? Well, there’s another piece of research done about a decade ago that looked at what happens when people feel socially rejected.

When people feel socially rejected, and you ask them to report the temperature around them, they report that the temperature feels a little bit cooler than it is.

At the end of the experiment, what would happen is those people would leave and and look for warm drinks, comfort food, and they’d put on warm, comfortable cardigans. They’d go out of the experiment and seek warmth and comfort.

The temperature hadn’t changed – they were just socially rejected through words as part of the experiment.

We know that words can affect how we feel, and words can affect our behaviours. So that’s why it’s important to choose your words carefully.

Let’s talk about the words that we are using during this pandemic: isolation and self-isolation.

If you look up the word “isolation” in the thesaurus, other words that come up include lonely, abandoned, and forsaken.

Our brains use heuristics or mental shortcuts, so we quite often have words that we’ve paired together as a mental shortcut. When we think the word “isolated” our brain automatically brings up the word “lonely”.

Self-isolated is, therefore, a cold word and mirrors the social rejection experiment we talked about before, which triggers comfort-seeking behaviours. People are now looking towards comfort eating and warm clothing.

The other thing is that cold words tend to indicate solo behaviour that is not community focused, which can help explain grocery hoarding. The words “self-isolating” come with a whole stack of baggage.

What if, instead of self-isolating, we used a different word.

The Danish have the perfect word – Hygge. It has a whole feeling of warmth and comfort experienced during the cold winters when they snuggle in safe and warm as a family into their homes.

We don’t have a word like that in the Australian dictionary. However, we do have words like nestle, huddle and cocoon.

What if instead of self-isolating, we used words that have warmth, that implied community and that were friendlier.

What if we, instead of self-isolating, we use the word nestle. So, we nestle at home, we huddle at home, or we cocoon at home.

Each of those words has different meanings. Nestle has the heuristic or mental shortcut with the word “safe”. “You nestle safely in your nest” is a really common mental combination.

For me, at the moment I’m nestling safely in my nest with my two little chicks, (my kids). I’m not self-isolating.  I’m nestling.

What about cocoon? Well, we could cocoon right now, and cocoon has a very different feeling. Cocoon has that whole butterfly thing happening. So when you cocoon, you end up turning into a butterfly and you’re transformed during this period. So cocooning is a fabulous word for a lot of us right now.

Huddling is another great term. Huddling is a bit more active and a bit more dynamic. It’s a bit more fun, and it’s a warmer word.

What we’re seeing is some marketers are starting to pick up on this and so they’re not saying, “Isolating at home? Buy our pizza!” Some of the pizza chains are now saying, “Huddling at home? Buy our pizza!” They’re already picking up that the word huddle has a very different feeling to self-isolation.

For example, when you’re ordering pizza, and you’re in a huddle, it’s more of a celebration. It’s a fun thing to do. It’s not just you being lonely, drinking a bottle of wine and having a pizza by yourself because you’re isolated and lonely.

Languaging makes a huge difference!

For you right now, look at the words that you’re using to explain your experience. Choose words of warmth, not cold.

So, you’re no longer self-isolating. You’re nestling safely at home because that will change how you respond to the community around you. It’ll also change your mindset, and it’ll change how you and your family experience things.

Nestling is a lot warmer and a lot less stressful than self-isolating, and it’ll change your emotional dynamic in your home.

How are the words you use with your workplace and your business? If the words that you’re using are cold and they feel off-putting to your clients and potential clients, then now is the time to warm your words up. If you need help warming your words up, get in touch as we are happy to help!

About the Author

Ingrid Moyle

Ingrid Moyle (BA - Psych/Industrial Relations) is the Chief Web Wizard at Heart Harmony Communications. A self-confessed multipotentialite, Ingrid shamelessly blends her passions of human resources, psychology, web design and copywriting. When not hardwired to her computer, she quests for the perfect coffee while chasing virtual reality creatures across the backstreets of Brisbane.
Bowler hat with lightbulb.

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