Words Matter

Words matter...in so many ways...they can even save lives.

Does should mean shall, and does shall mean must? To say “should” versus “shall”, “may” versus “must” or that something is “recommended” versus “required” makes a world of difference. In some circumstances it can ultimately translate into life or death. For example, the words used made the difference between those returning from spring break feeling that it was recommended (but not required) to isolate for 14 days in their homes versus the requirement being both mandatory and enforceable.

The Words We Use to Change Behaviour

With over a decade of policy writing and review, I learned the importance of words and looking for unintended nuance that could be either misinterpreted or, by the truly clever or determined, intentionally exploited. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded me again of the importance of the words we choose and the importance of proscriptive language, when we need a directive to be followed, while avoiding softer/more indirect language we often referred to at work as “weasel words” that may lend themselves to creating unintended loopholes (“may” itself being a king of the weasel words!). To be clear, sometimes you may want to use “may”, but only if you want flexibility in both interpretation and action.

As events rapidly evolved with the pandemic, the recommendations quickly became mandatory, out of necessity, and more proscriptive language adopted. Another shift I have been happy to see is a (slow but steady) shift from the initial use of the term “social distancing” moving to “physical distancing”. While catchy phrases and new “market-speak” terms can sometimes be useful, with the current medical imperative, this is another example where using precise, direct, and common language can be important. With the use of the term “social distancing”, I think too many people were hearing, “it’s definitely ok to get together with people and be social while keeping a set distance” while more recently the messaging is stay home and physically apart from anyone not in your household. Those messages may seem subtle but can be worlds apart depending on the receiver’s own desired interpretation.

Why then wasn’t the messaging clearer form the start? Limited understanding of the virus and just how easily it seems to spread likely played a part, but I think we also tend to not want to tell people what to do. We hope and believe (perhaps naively) that people will choose to do the right things. That leads me to another lesson I learned all too well in risk management and compliance: While lots of people, will do the right thing, even in the absence of proscriptive language However, regardless of the words used, there will always be people who choose to ignore rules, regulation, or advisories regardless. It is when these decisions become a matter of life or death, we find we have to move to more direct and precise language or, when even that doesn’t work, to what some may view as draconian compliance enforcement measures. These are two realities:

1. We should always reserve the right to get smarter; and
2. Sometimes we need to help those that can’t seem to help themselves.

The above considers language we use when we need to change behaviour, whether it be through formal communications, policies, orders or government Acts. But what about the words we use in our day to day more informal interactions with others?

The Words We Use to Communicate to Our Employees

In an uncertain environment where things are changing rapidly, anxiety and stress can abound. Many of us are feeling the pressure of having to adapt to working from home, balancing caregiver roles with work, or perhaps facing a loss of income with industry wide lay offs, or you may be an essential worker that exposes you to an increased risk of getting sick. Others may be finding themselves at a workplace that is quickly having to learn how to pivot to a different delivery model or even retooling product to meet changing market demands. Regardless of your personal situation, the uncertainty and rapid pace of change as well as the global health and economic impacts are unprecedented compared to what many of us have experienced in our lifetimes.

Here is where words can help. Communication to employees that is calm, steady, thoughtful and informative, to the greatest extent possible, is extremely important. Avoiding emotionally driven communications that can enhance anxiety and stress should be considered. The paragraph above may easily have been written instead as follows:

With the economy in freefall and unraveling at break-neck speed, anxiety and stress is abounding. With companies and workers universally overwhelmed the situation is dire as the global economy and healthcare systems seem to be spinning completely out of control.  No one is safe.  No one is untouched. This is catastrophe at a level previously unforeseen by most of us. We should all be frightened regardless of your personal situation.

Perhaps this is how many of us are feeling, but in writing it can be downright frightening and less than helpful. This is not the best approach with your employees who more than likely understand the realities, but at this time need to understand how your organization is dealing with the challenges and to be reassured that there is strong leadership to help navigate through these unprecedented and challenging times. They need to understand the steps and measures you are taking to protect them if they are working and to guide them where there may be supports for them if they are not able to work.

Mental health and wellness are going to be of critical importance to weather this storm. Employers have a key role to play in supporting their workers through this period. Ongoing communication and the words you choose matter.

Lastly, I want to talk about the words we say to ourselves i.e. how we personally choose to frame things for ourselves. How we frame things can have a significant impact on our own mental health and ability to deal with anxiety and stress with resilience. Think of the example I gave above in framing the current circumstances and try to be mindful how you might frame things in a different or more positive light.

To this point, we can view isolation is an imposition and inconvenience, or we can choose to view it as a chance to do our part to potentially save lives. Amidst the bad news and dire projections, I try to remind myself to consider the positives that are coming out of this and the strength the human spirit we are experiencing each and everyday. We are challenging ourselves to rethink the way we have done business in the past and demonstrating that through innovation and creative thinking we can come together collectively to problem solve and support one another through a tremendously challenging time.

So, in this challenging time, try to be mindful about the words you use with others and in your own internal dialogue. Most importantly, be kind to each other, but also remember to be kind to yourself, and remember, you are not alone. We are all in this together.


unsplash-logoPhoto Credit Brett Jordan
Previous PostCovid Stress & Anxiety
Next PostChallenge & Change