My sister uses the expression “All roads lead to Rome” as an indicator that some things are just meant to be. You know when all the signs are there, and the universe seems to just be pushing you in a certain direction?
With practice, I am getting slightly better at recognising the signs, and this week, all roads lead to language. More specifically the power it has to subtly influence out mood, views and attitudes, all without us even realising.
A disclaimer at the start – I am not an expert on this topic. I am simply sharing my own thoughts and experiences. I invite you to challenge, educate and inform if you think differently!
Road 1. The unconscious mind
I recently finished reading the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwel. It kind of blew me away.
The book is about the power of our unconscious brain to make intuitive decisions on our behalf. Sometimes they can be remarkably on the money – you know, when you just have that gut feeling that something is right – your intuition is giving you the answer? That there is gold dust!
BUT… Sometimes the unconscious can hit very wide of the mark because it may fail to take the wider context into account in it’s knee jerk reaction. Bad times.
One of the chapters in the book was about our unconscious association of words with each other and with concepts, attitudes and thoughts.
In one study described in the book, the investigators asked participants to play a word game, rearranging jumbled words to form a sentence. Unbeknownst to the participants, each sentence contained subtle cues to ageing or being old and the investigators were actually observing the participants’ body language and motion on their way into and out of the test.
They found evidence that when leaving the test, the participants took on physical mannerisms of the elderly compared to their physicality when they arrived. They moved slower and were less upright. The word play had got their unconscious thinking about being old and their body was acting that out.
This is called priming and is based on the power of suggestion. It’s kind of what hypnotherapists do… and successful sales people.
It’s a mind blowing example of how significantly everyday language can impact us without us knowing.
There is a whole field called NLP or neuro-linguistic programming which looks at how the language we use interacts with our brain. It can be incredibly powerful, though it’s one of those areas which is open to charlatans promising the earth. BUT what it does tell us is that how you talk to yourself, and to others matters.
Those affirmation post-it notes on the mirror really can make a difference! Positive affirmations can work, because they prime the mind to believe in *good (*substutute with luck /success / confidence etc. as applicable), and if we believe good is coming then we will see it.
‘Blink’ also discusses a psychometric test called the IAT, the Implicit Association Test, developed by Harvard University, which studies the strength of associations between concepts (male/ female, black / white, gay/straight, fat/thin) and our evaluation (good/bad) or stereotypes (athletic / clumsy) related to those concepts.
We are often unaware that these associations and biases exist and this test is designed to highlight them by recording how long it takes us to associate each concept with a value / stereotype by asking participants to sort words into groups.
In short, this test shows that people who self report having no prejudice against a certain group actually do. Almost everyone has implicit bias in language one way or the other.
The IAT is not without criticism but what it does do reliably is to teach is about the existence of implicit bias. To make us aware that our unconscious does not always agree with us.
Becoming vigilant to this bias means that we can overcome it.
Road 2. The Yarn Community
It started with a blog. A New Years post by a lady who had never left the US and was excited about getting over her anxieties and travelling to India.
Whilst the blog was mostly about how she never thought she would face her fears, some of the language she used was incredibly offensive to some.
My opinion of the post was that there was zero malice or racist intent, but a lot of that implicit bias as we just talked about, and a demonstration of ignorance of a world unfamiliar to the writer. I don’t pretend to be ultra woke, but I was cringing so much my toes curled as I read certain parts.
I’m not going to name names because I think the woman in question has had quite enough attention. She was the one who was made an example of and I kind feel bad for her. I could have been her. Ultimately her ignorance was a result of the society she was raised in. The language she used was not offensive to her and her life experience meant she had not considered it might be offensive to others.
The positive which came out of of this is that a huge conversation has started about inclusion, exclusion, racism, equality and prejudice in the yarn community.
It has been very educational for me just to listen to and read about people’s experiences of prejudice in various guises and exclusion within the community.
There has been criticism going around of people for remaining silent in the conversation. I doubt I am the only one, but can only speak for myself in that I’m not sure what I can add to the discussion. It seems too obvious just to say I abhor racism and support inclusion of all, surely that is a given in this day and age?
I confess, I am also scared of saying something that might demonstrate my own ignorance and make things worse. I have never experienced racial discrimination so I can empathise with those who have but I can’t know what it is like to walk in their shoes. What I can do is listen and hear. I have been reading the stories and the conversations. I am learning and I am trying to better understand the world outside my immediate experience.
So I am going to stick to the science here…
I think it’s fair to say that most decent human beings like to think they aren’t racist or xenophobic or bigoted, judgemental or prejudiced. But here’s the killer…
Just as the IAT and hundreds of studies have shown over the years, our unconscious mind IS judgemental. It has to be.
It is designed to work that way to help us navigate the world. It loves in-groups and out-groups (“us and them”) and it takes snipits of information and tries to generalise based on that.
It tells us that lions and tigers (and maybe all cats?) are dangerous, that that green booze makes us sick (so maybe all green drinks are bad), that polyester (and maybe all fabric that feels similar) goes static and clings to us in embarrassing ways (another story for another time). This prejudice can be life saving. But sometimes it can also get it totally wrong and cause a lot of trouble.
I want to make something very clear here. Unconscious bias may be the reason for a lot of discrimination but it does not excuse it.
The GOOD NEWS: Once we understand this is how our minds work, we can challenge them. We can make these prejudices conscious and call bullshit on them.
Being more mindful of language is one way we can challenge this bias and retrain our brains to eliminate it. Which leads me nicely onto…
Road 3. The Jargon Buster
I was writing a blog post last week about top down construction of crochet sweaters. Part way through, I went down a bit of a rabbit hole about some of the terminology used.
Crafts like crochet or knitting or dressmaking have been around for a long time and have a lot of terms and expressions which seem to belong to another era.
Words which the common language today doesn’t help us to understand. Words like Yoke, Raglan, Welt and Briosche (I’m not even sure I spelt that last one right… I thought that was bread…).
If you’ve grown up having been taught by your Nan or studied fashion then you might know these words. If you haven’t then you won’t.
When you walk into a room (or social media platform) and everyone is talking using words you don’t understand then you immediately feel like the outsider. The imposter syndrome alarm strarts ringing.
I have been made to feel like the idiot that doesn’t belong because I have to ask what those words mean. I’ve felt like I am being looked down on for it. Like I don’t deserve to design if I haven’t learned the traditional way.
It may be that this perceived condescention is entirely in my head and based on nothing more than my own insecurity. Maybe I should just get over myself, dust that chip off my shoulder and not care what I look like to other people. But maybe I should let the traditionalists know how shitty they are making me feel. I expect they would be mortified!
Regardless of whether it was imagined or real, that is how the situation made me feel.
Now I am not comparing this alienation by yarn snobs to racism but using it as an illustration of the power which language has to so easily create ‘otherness’
Here’s another example.
I was talking to a friend about this topic and she told me a story of her husband who works in an art and design department at a university. He is white and was having a conversation with a colleague who was a poc. In the context of painting, he used the term ‘flesh colour’ in conversation. His colleague pointed out that this was not his flesh colour. Of course my friend’s husband meant no offence by using the term, but it was just something ingrained in his vocabulary.
His colleague had made conscious this bias built into the everyday vernacular and he resolved not to use the term again and thanked his colleague for highlighting it.
The fork in the road
I hear a lot of complaints about everything having to be ‘too PC’ and how everyone is so easily offended these days. But anecdotes like the last one really bring home to me why careful use of language is so important.
I am an advocate of free speech and if you have a stance you believe in which may offend others then I defend your right to offend. BUT be offensive on purpose so we can have a debate about it and we can constructively challenge each other’s views.
Just try to avoid being offensive through ignorance or laziness! It’s a subtle but important difference. I hope I’ve explained it properly!
I hope as you read you can see how these 3 roads have led from different directions to the same place.
The language we use everyday, both when talking to others and ourselves has a huge impact on everything – our moods, attitudes and perception of the world. It is down to each of us to think carefully about how we use it.
I wish I had some life altering conclusion to give you, but it’s a complex topic so there are no simple solutions. All I can do is to champion the importance and power of awareness. Whether it’s sexism, racism, ageism or any other bias, pulling these threads together has made me vigilant. I’m much more conscious of how I use language and how it may impact people who look or feel or live or love differently to me.
Thanks for reading. It’s been a long one but I think it’s important to think about these issues and take responsibility for the part we can all play.