By Eric Gombrich
I was in a meeting a few weeks back and a colleague made the statement “Words matter!” The context of the statement was that another person had recently said something, and my colleague had bristled at what was said. It was obvious that my colleague was bothered by what was said. To be clear, what the other person had said was, in my opinion, neither offensive nor egregious. It was not classically offensive in so much that it was not racist, sexist, religiously-anchored, or dismissive of any faction of society. It didn’t even have to do with a favorite NFL team!
To be clear, the comment didn’t offend me. In all candor, I actually agreed with its sentiment. This in turn caused me a significant pause and some active introspection. One of the initial thoughts I had was that if I agree with the sentiment, would I have potentially said the same thing? And if the answer was yes, what is wrong with me that I would have said something to offend my colleague; am I unaware, insensitive, or simply cruel? I’ve been ruminating on this for some time now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I am none of those things (surprise!).
As I considered the encounter, and the reality that it could have very easily been I that made the statement, the following is also true:
- I knew exactly why my colleague didn’t like what was said. I believe this is evidence of awareness.
- I empathized with my colleague’s concern; evidence of sensitivity. And,
- The mental energy having gone into this (and now the writing of this blog) is evidence of my caring – the inverse of cruelty.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the issue was not with the words spoken, but the sentiment being expressed. I’ve further concluded that my colleague’s emotional response was also based in their interpretation of the words and the meaning they impart.
In other words, while I am the kind of person that initially seeks to take responsibility (and control) for all matters rather than point fingers and shirk responsibility, this is a great example of where it takes “two to tango.” Communication as we all know is based in a delicate dance between a sender and a receiver. And that ‘dance’ is precariously teetering on the parties’ willingness to find the connection and balance.
In that context, I’ve concluded it’s not the words that matter nearly as much as their meaning and intent. Words are merely short-cuts to convey a sentiment. To be dogmatic regarding the meaning of a word based on my life-experiences is disingenuous to the ‘dance,’ unfair to the speaker of the words, and is likely based in a lack of trust.
For example, if I say to you (speak vs. write) “You are fat!” you may receive it as an insult; a critique of your physical presence against societal and personal norms. And you may be offended.
However, if you had just accomplished something substantial, overcome obstacles, and achieved something amazing, you can just as easily hear “You are phat!” the slang for ‘great’ or ‘awesome’ and receive the message as an accolade.
While the choice to use the word fat / phat is mine, isn’t my willingness to use a term steeped in urban slang (phat) an indication of the trust I have in you? If you choose to infer an interpretation that is negative (fat), isn’t that a reflection of your lack of trust in me?
While the words may matter, I believe it’s their meaning that has even greater value. When I hear something said, simply reacting to the words is disingenuous to the connection sought in the communication. It requires an investment of energy to consider what the speaker meant with the words they chose. If my interpretation is that the meaning is out of context, unexpected with respect to context or social norms, or yes – offensive – I have a responsibility to speak-up and seek clarification from the speaker of their meaning; I owe it to the speaker whom themselves have chosen to invest time in ‘the dance.’
I know I’ve used the wrong word occasionally; simple grammatical mistakes, often times based on ignorance, exhaustion, or simple mental laziness. While I may be embarrassed when I realize the error, even if it is the other person I’m speaking to that brings it to my attention, I appreciate the willingness by them to explore the real intent of what I said. Doing so indicates a willingness to find common ground; to establish a relationship; to forge trust. Conversely, rigid response to the words used conveys the opposite, and says a lot…even if unspoken.
I have an aunt whom I love immensely. My mother’s youngest sister, she spent a career teaching, retiring after decades as an English Lit professor. I (now) have fond memories of her efforts to correct my grammar and syntax, even returning holiday cards corrected.
One day during a visit, she, my mother, my younger brother and I were riding in a car. I was about 12 years old, and, well, being 12, testing my limits. I said something that included one of those dreaded 4-letter words. My mother gasped in horror (probably more in embarrassment). After a moment of screaming silence, my aunt spoke-up; “Jackie, sometimes you just have to say <expletive>! No other word fits.” Another momentary silence, and then my brother’s and my laugh reflex took-over.
We all ended-up having a good long laugh. But in that moment, I learned ‘words do matter.’ Since then, I’ve come to realize words don’t matter nearly as much as what is meant by the speaker or writer when expressing them. Furthermore, once the words are ‘sent,’ the burden of their impact shifts to the recipient; the listener or reader. Our willingness to look past the actual words and focus on their meaning is what is at the root of good communication, and a collaborative relationship.
What does this have to do with marketing and/or sales? Everything!
While it is relatively easy to choose the right words that don’t offend, choosing words that convey the correct meaning is much more difficult. This is particularly true when communicating with diverse audiences, crossing cultural, socio-economic, and educational or professional backgrounds, as well as perspectives.
A great example of this can be seen with the terms “price” and “cost.” The ‘price’ for which I sell my product from your perspective is your ‘cost.’ But it’s not your total ‘cost.’ You have cost related to implementation, opportunity, and stocking (among other things), none of which stems from my ‘price.’ If you ask me “What does it cost?”, if I infer your meaning to be asking about my “price,” I may give you a quote. But that quote won’t actually be your total ‘cost.’ You can see where this is going.
But this is only one example. What I believe to be a benefit may not be beneficial to you; a feature may be a weakness; and those things I expect to be valuable to you may in fact be worthless given your specific situation.
So it’s crucial for marketing and sales professionals to not only choose words carefully, but significantly invest in verifying meaning with their customers and market. The words I choose don’t mean nearly as much as the meaning you impute in those words. If I assume you have accurately done so, I run the risk of undermining the entire relationship.
Experience suggests you too have had communication gaffes at some point in your life. Do you see any patterns in them? Do they occur more in your personal or professional lives? With certain categories of people or professions?
What can you learn from that?